Uncovering the Mystery of Editing “True Detective: Night Country”

True Detective: Night Country editors Mags, Brenna, and Matt had never worked together before uniting under showrunner Issa López for the fourth season of the HBO MAX anthology series, but you wouldn’t know it from talking to them. The camaraderie between the three and the fun they have is in stark contrast to the dark and dangerous tone of their hit show.

Summary for True Detective: Night Country

True Detective: Night Country is set in the fictional town of Ennis, Alaska and follows the investigation behind the mysterious disappearance, and even more mysterious discovery, of eight men from a research station. Leading the investigation are two law enforcement officers who share a troubled past, Detectives Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis).

In our discussion with True Detective: Night Country editors Mags Arnold, Brenna Rangott and Matt Chessé, ACE, we talk about:

  • Fun with field trips
  • When the editor is the scene stealer
  • Keeping things light when the story’s so dark
  • Playing the paranormal against the practical
  • How “clumping” is better than cross cutting

Listen as you read…

Editing True Detective: Night Country

Matt Feury: This is a two-part question for each of you. What made you want to work on this show? And what was your favorite part when it was over? Brenna, I thought we would start with you. 

Brenna Rangott: It wasn’t necessarily a decision that I made myself coming into it. I’d worked with Issa Lopez before on a TV series she directed called Brittania. We got on well. Then she came to me in a very flattering way and wanted to work with me again. So that’s how I came onto the job. 

MF: What was your favorite part coming out of it?

Brenna Rangott: I enjoyed being in the sound mix. We were lucky to be kept on right until the end. We got to spend time with the sound department, sort of signing off on it and finishing it. When you work on things, you often get marched off or you don’t get to see it through to the end of the final mix. So I enjoyed that part of it, mostly because that’s the last thing I remember.

MF: Mags, same thing for you. What made you want to do the show and what was your favorite part coming out? 

Mags Arnold: I was a big fan of the first series. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen. There was nothing else like it. So when I heard there was a fourth series and it was going to be in London, and I was being considered as one of the editors, I knew I wanted to do it. I had a Zoom call with Issa and Mari-Jo Winkler, the producer. I knew I wanted to do it once I’d spoken to them. Then, of course, when I heard it was Jodie Foster, I thought, “Right, that’s it. I have to do this.” I was lucky to get picked. 

Brenna Rangott: That is possibly the most obvious thing that I neglected to say when I was answering your question. Jodie Foster is a big draw card as well. 

Mags Arnold: I had read episode one. There’s a scene between Danvers and Navarro and they talk about something that’s happened in the past. What they said made me think that there was some sort of hinterland and that they’d had a prior relationship. I thought, “Not only is this Jodie Foster, True Detective, and Issa Lopez but now Jodie is going to play a gay person as well. I was super excited. Of course, it didn’t go that way. I didn’t misunderstand, but it could be interpreted either way. 

I thought it was cool that Jodie Foster was doing a TV show. She hadn’t done that before as far as I know. And it was her first role as a detective since The Silence of the Lambs. When I thought about that, I’d go, “Oh my God, If I don’t get this, I’m going to feel like such a failure.” I’m lucky I got it. I was over the moon. I felt very lucky all the way through. 

Sometimes you get a job like that and you think, “Wow, this is a great thing” and then it disappoints for various reasons, either the personnel or the material or a combination of things. But this one was a joy right from the start. Everything worked. There was a chemistry and synergy that happened and things just went well. 

We ended up having this amazing community of people. We went to Iceland a couple of times. But then when we got back for post-production, we had a great energy and creative buzz. Everybody was listened to, which was amazing. That probably was the best thing about it. 

MF: Matt, a.k.a Chalky, same thing for you. Why did you want to do this and what was your favorite part coming out? 

Matt Chesse, ACE: It was all the things that Mags alluded to about the draw and the quality of the show. I loved the first True Detective. It’s legendary. I haven’t done a lot of episodic TV and I had been wanting to be invited to that table. This was an amazing card to draw, to get to enter on an HBO show, to have it be True Detective, and to have it be Jodie Foster and Issa. It ticked a lot of boxes for me.

I have a prior connection to Jodie Foster. She directed a feature that I edited, so I was in contact with her when she was shooting Night Country. I could tell from the way she was communicating that she was in love with the show. She loved working with Issa and it all reawakened her joy of acting. She radiated positive energy. So I knew it was a great show. I could read that. When I got invited to participate, I knew it was going to be a good experience. 

You always learn things when you change formats. Features, documentaries, and reality shows have differences in who’s in charge, who’s delivering the episodes, and the way that they roll off the assembly line. It was great to be in the HBO machine and see how that particular sausage was made.

But the other thing that Mags was alluding to was the camaraderie. My favorite thing about the show was the experience of being there with everybody. We knew early on that we had a good team and that it was working. There was a lot of conviviality, a lot of hanging out together. I had amazing teammates. I liked everybody. It went even better than I expected. 

And I loved Issa. Issa was an incredible discovery. I didn’t know much about her, so I had to catch up. When I came on, I hadn’t seen her movie. She kept asking, “Have you seen Tigers Are Not Afraid?” I watched it and thought, “Wow, that was amazing.” She asked me, “Why did you take this show if you hadn’t seen Tigers?” I said, “Well, there were a lot of reasons, but now I’m glad that I’m here because that was a fantastic movie.” Tigers is her original film, which is a Mexican drug cartel ghost story about these kids trying to survive, and it’s terrific. This was an amazing job to pull.

The other thing was that I had worked with Jodie Foster, editing with her and making a movie with her, but I hadn’t cut any of her performances before. That was the flipside of it. Honestly, I would have been sad if I hadn’t gotten to participate in the show. I’m glad to have been a part of it. 

MF: When you’re working with a director for the first time, what are the things that you do to get acclimated to them, their process, and their style? Do you watch their previous work to get a sense of their style? 

Matt Chesse: I do research. I ask for homework. Usually, I ask if there are any references that they want to use or anything that they want to lean into or out of. I do genre research. I watch movies that the DP has shot. I do whatever I can to get acclimated. 

Brenna Rangott: I already sort of knew what Issa’s style was. Even in the assembly stage, I kind of knew what the expectations were. Issa likes to see cuts as the show is being shot. So we were doing quite a lot of notes as we were shooting. We had the opportunity to go back and start fine-cutting things in a way because Issa shot all six episodes and we each had two episodes. There were days when we had a bit of spare time to go back over some of our scenes. We didn’t have constant rushes every single day. It was nice to be able to work the scenes and have a dialog with Issa along the way before we got to the fine cut.

MF: Matt mentioned wanting to know reference films. I’ve read that Issa mentioned The Thing, The Shining, and Alien

Mags Arnold: Yeah, she loves horror. She’s a big fan. 

MF: What did she talk about with you guys? What did she want to take from those kinds of films? 

Brenna Rangott: She talked a lot about Tsalal station being shot in a very similar way to the hotel in The Shining. That was part of it. You can’t get away from the references to The Silence of the Lambs. People are going to make those associations no matter what. And there’s the episode where she’s questioning Peter Prior and saying, “Ask the question, ask the question.” It’s that real flip on, on what Hannibal was doing to her. It’s a very obvious reference. There was lots of talk about The Thing as far as atmosphere. And so Tsalal Station is the hotel in The Shining.

Matt Chesse: In episode one they come into Tsalal Station when Danvers (Jodie Foster) arrives and she kicks the shit out of the malfunctioning DVD player that’s playing…

Mags Arnold: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. 

Matt Chesse: Yeah, playing Ferris Bueller. But there’s a copy of The Thing prominently featured on the shelf. We had to find the take where you could read the title best because it was obvious that Issa had dropped that in. I think it’s cool to own that and not cover it up. Do the homage. 

I read that quickly. I was catching up with some things because I hadn’t spent a lot of time with Issa. All those references from the story, the pictures, the images, and the way that the camera approached the station, made me think about the mood or the music in the scenes. The station was looming in a way. It was a fixture there in the snow that reminded us of the station in The Thing. We were going over all that stuff. 

Issa wears her influences on her sleeve. She’s a huge movie and theater nerd. We were going out to see stuff. We got to see the Krzysztof Kieślowski Three Colors trilogy. While we were working, Issa was making time to discover stuff. She is very up on current films. So it’s great. We were talking about influences all the time. She’s got a huge appetite.

Mags Arnold: There were field trips, Matt. Lots of field trips. 

Matt Chesse: I love that. Usually, I’m running around doing my discovery by myself. But Issa was very game to do that too. We all were game to join in the freaky movie hunt.

MF: Did you go back and watch the first three seasons of True Detective, specifically the first one, because there are some callbacks and some tie-ins to that?

Mags Arnold: I watched season one and season three again before I started the job. I still haven’t watched season two. I don’t know why. I think I never got to it. I thought I’d watch season three because I heard it was better. Issa had talked about that to a certain extent, so I thought, “I’ll do that one and if I have time, I’ll go back to the other one.” I still haven’t watched season two.

Matt Chesse: I’m the same. 

Brenna Rangott: Me too. 

Mags Arnold: So, I went back and watched it. It was interesting because in episode two, we discover that the character Travis Cohle is hinted to be the father of Rust Cohle, Matthew McConaughey’s character from season one. There are little hints everywhere, and it was fun discovering that in the material.

Issa loves horror movies and there was one field trip she organized where we were all supposed to go and see a horror movie. I can’t watch horror movies. I used to watch them as a teenager, but I can’t anymore. I don’t know why. I get too freaked out. I couldn’t go on that one. 

Brenna Rangott: What did we see, Matt? I can’t remember now. 

Matt Chesse: Was it The Haunting of Julia with Mia Farrow?

Brenna Rangott: Yeah, that’s it. 

Matt Chesse: That movie was heavier on vibe than on horror, but it was properly seventies. Kind of a cult classic. 

Mags Arnold: I remember it was a classic.

Matt Chesse: I don’t think Issa had seen it in a long time. It was an amazing print. Whatever they had up there was great. We also went to see Theater of Blood with Vincent Price, which is very camp. I was digging around for the harder stuff. 

MF: As I understand it, filming began in November 2022 and wrapped in April 2023. It took place in Iceland and in Alaska. Where were you cutting and what was the editorial setup for all three of you?

Mags Arnold: I can start with that. Right from the beginning, Issa was worried that there wasn’t going to be enough time for her to dig into the material and work in post. The schedule was tight and it was a long shoot and so on. So she wanted the editors to be involved with her at an early stage.

She had us come over to Iceland a week before Christmas. Then in March, we went back for a couple of weeks. In the end, I think Brenna was there for about three weeks in total, weren’t you? 

Brenna Rangott: I ended up going back three times. I think it was mostly because there were some chunky scenes in episode six. I went back three times and we were quite literally on set. 

Mags Arnold: We were. We were editing on set. 

Brenna Rangott: The playback operator was handing us little thumb drives and we were sort of putting it together. It’s always nice for editors to get to go to set because we’re always slightly removed from that. You’re not part of it. You don’t get the sense of what the crew is experiencing. 

Mags Arnold: No one recognizes you at the wrap party. 

Brenna Rangott: A lot of the time they were shooting right into the night. The shooting days were insane. It was difficult. Sitting there until three o’clock in the morning makes you feel more connected to the crew. Once you hit the ground running with the fine cut, you’ve already started having some of these conversations. You’re not going in blind. You don’t have that big shock of, “What have we got? What does it look like?” You’ve already started working through it. I thought that was useful. 

MF: Did you have a proper edit suite environment on location? Were you in trailers with laptops? How rough was it? 

Brenna Rangott: I don’t know what the others were doing. I think Mags’s setup was quite similar to mine. It was a laptop on a fold-up desk next to the playback operator with some headphones.

Mags Arnold: Pretty much, yeah. We also had a cutting room at the studio. The bulk of the shoot was in Iceland and at the studios where they’d built the interiors and things. Then the Alaska stuff was shot by the second unit. The main unit was never in Alaska. 

Matt Chesse: And I came on when they wrapped cameras. We were in London principally for the real cut. I’ve been to Alaska, but I’ve never been to Iceland. I would have been very keen to go. I was jealous that I missed that. 

Mags Arnold: It was great. 

Matt Chesse: I think there was a lot of bonding and a lot of fondness for that part of the shoot. People alluded to it a lot. It must have been a magical thing. I think that was beneficial. Everyone seems to have loved being in the trenches together in Iceland. It was cold but magical. 

Mags Arnold: Yeah, it was cool. Iceland is a cool place. 

MF: Do you prefer to be cutting on location? Or do you generally like to be removed from production?

Brenna Rangott: It’s a fine balance, I think. You want to have time to yourself where you’re not distracted and you can focus on the material and plow through it, but you also want to feel connected to the production. It was great to have a cutting room where we could close the door and get into the material instead of doing it on the fly and not necessarily absorbing the material. It was good to have both. 

Mags Arnold: Being on set was a very small part of it. It wasn’t the bulk of the shoot. Bren went over because Issa wanted her to be there for a particular set of scenes. They wanted to make sure the scenes were working and the eyelines were right so they could proceed. I did the same thing. I’d go and find them on set and say, “I’ve put that together and it works fine” and they’d say, “Great!” and carry on. 

But most of the time we’d get your dailies and work through them. And then once a week we’d upload them to Issa. She was getting our stuff regularly and then coming back to us with ideas. I had a bit of time with her in Iceland and we got to know each other’s process, so that helped. And then we had a two-week Christmas hiatus. Issa came to London and worked with us for a few days before we all went on holiday. It was nice to get to know each other a little bit. But most of it was the way it’s done now. We had our own space, our room. 

Brenna Rangott: You were mostly cutting at home, weren’t you, Mags? 

Mags Arnold: I was mostly at home, yeah. 

Brenna Rangott: I hate working from home. I have to have my workspace away from home. So I was in a cutting room and everyone else was remote. The assistants were all working remotely during the shoot. It was nice when we wrapped and everyone came together. It was a great experience when everyone was in the same building together. 

Mags Arnold: That was nice. We felt like we knew each other already because we’d had these little pockets of time, you know? Sometimes you work on a show and everything’s very rushed, and then your director shows up and suddenly you have to find a shorthand and a way through all of it. So it was nice that Isa had the foresight to think, “I’m not going to wait until it’s all over. Let’s start now.”

We were fine-cutting and reworking scenes, as Bren explained, because we weren’t getting all our rushes every single day. I’d have the footage from Monday and Tuesday and then on Wednesday and Thursday there’d be nothing. So I was able to take the notes Issa provided and polish the scenes, rework them, try different things, and then send them back. Then Issa would come back again. We were doing a lot of fine-cutting whilst we were assembling, which was very interesting. 

Matt Chesse: I didn’t get the opportunity to go to set while they were shooting. But I’m not generally a fan of that anyway. I like to run by the set and meet everybody, but I don’t like to be mired in it. I think it gets in the way of being able to assess the footage and have a fresh experience. If you’re not on set, you don’t have the PTSD of whatever went down to shoot it.

Mags Arnold: Yeah, that’s true.

Matt Chesse: You can find stuff that might make somebody who was there shudder. I think it’s helpful to be a little bit aloof. Getting into it with Issa was easy, even though I was catching up a bit. She is such a direct person. Issa’s such a dynamo. She doesn’t mince words, she’s a great raconteur, and she has a mesmerizing presence, so I took to her right away. I didn’t feel like I was trying to find common ground. 

Issa is tuned into her material and so obsessed with telling the story. And she spends her weekends gathering music, then comes back and gives you ideas. It was great. She has a great bedside manner and a great style. I clicked with her right away and I think these guys did too, because Issa is remarkable. 

Brenna Rangott: Issa knew her material. Some directors shoot stuff and can’t remember. Issa knew the details. She’d go, “No, there’s another take where she does this.” And I’d think, “My God, how the hell does she know that?” She’s very smart. 

Matt Chesse: And very attuned. 

Brenna Rangott: Very broad bandwidth.

Mags Arnold: She doesn’t miss a thing. 

MF: On the technical side of collaboration, you mentioned the assistants being remote and Mags was at home. How did you share and access the material?

Brenna Rangott: During the shoot, we had these guys that were supplying our AVIDs, a wonderful bunch from Salon. We all had these sync boxes. Mags was at home, I was in a cutting room because I wanted to have a separate space, and all the assistants had the same thing. There was a little bit of a delay with uploading material, if I’m right.

Mags Arnold: Sometimes there’d be a little hiccup.

Brenna Rangott: But essentially everyone used these sync boxes that made everything exactly as if we were all in the same building. 

Mags Arnold: It’s called the SalonSync Box. I don’t know if it’s proprietary to Salon or not, but they seem to have perfected the way it works. All the material comes into the AVIDs in the cutting room at Feel Films, which is where Bren would have been based. Then it gets shared to all these boxes which synchronize. You can hear them put-putting away as they are catching up. Mine’s right outside my bedroom, so I used to be able to hear it at night and think, “Right, that’s the material.”

Brenna Rangott: “There’s my work coming in.” 

Mags Arnold: And then I’d wake up. I’m an early riser. I don’t like waking up and then heading into the office. So I would get up sometimes at five in the morning and there it would be. The assistants were remote, I think. There was one assistant in town with Bren. Is that right? 

Brenna Rangott: Yeah. We had three first assistant editors. Lisa Clifford-Owen was the lead first. She’s a legend with a very impressive CV. She ran the show. Then we had two other fantastic guys, Matt Davies and Daniel Davies. Someone was available at any point. 

MF: Issa wrote and directed all the episodes, and the show wasn’t shot in a block style. You each had two episodes. Chalky, you’re the last one in. How did you wind up cutting the first episode? How was it determined which episodes you each did? 

Matt Chesse: Divvying them up probably happened before I came on. How did you guys decide on your episodes? I was episodes one and four, Mags was two and five and Bren was three and six. 

Mags Arnold: We were told that’s what we were doing. Our post producer Layla Blackman said, “Issa has decided that this is how the episodes are going to be divided up.” 

Brenna Rangott: You were quite happy because you wanted episode five, didn’t you? 

Mags Arnold: I was very pleased.

Matt Chesse: When I came on and realized I was cutting the pilot, there had already been some assembly on it. But they had been looking for the right person to take those episodes over. They were the least evolved, but there was some assembly already there. I was excited to jump because I hadn’t done a lot of TV. I called a friend of mine, Jordan Goldman, who’s done a lot of episodes, and asked, “If I’m doing the pilot, does that mean that I’m coming in and setting a tone? Will everyone be listening to me? Do I need to guide all the other episodes?” Jordan said, “No, everybody’s cool. They’re doing their own thing. You’re only doing your episode.” So that calmed me down. I didn’t know what it meant to be cutting the pilot. And it meant I was doing the pilot.

It was nice because I was catching up. I had to meet all the characters and figure out how the series was playing out. Since I was doing the first episode, I wasn’t somewhere down the line trying to look backward. I was starting things out. I was unwrapping the episode. It was good that I started on that end because I was meeting all the characters and setting up all the plot lines. That’s what needed to be done and that’s where my head was at.

MF: With the nature of this show, I would think that there are mysteries to be unraveled and backstories to be told. You get these flashbacks, you have odd visuals, and all of you need to be in sync. I would think you all would need to be talking a lot about the work that you’re doing and looking at each other’s episodes. How do you three collaborate from a story standpoint throughout post-production?

Mags Arnold: Well, Chalky kept stealing my shots. 

Brenna Rangott: There was a definite moment where she’d come in and go, “Hang on, that was in my episode!”

Mags Arnold: And because it was episode one, he got away with it. 

Brenna Rangott: Issa would go, “Sorry guys. It’s episode one. He gets them.”

Matt Chesse: There was a pool of shared shots and there was a particular shot that had an aggressive muscle car. You need this truck jamming through the tundra. And it had to be a specific car for a specific character at a specific time in the show. Mags and I were sort of dueling for this one shot. And won the faceoff.

But it’s tricky because there is a pool of stuff that’s been shot in certain locations and is atmospheric. Sometimes you need a shot that acts like a palate cleanser. But it’s got to resonate with whoever you’re leaving or who you’re going to. And they would double up sometimes. And we had to sort that out. The assistants had to go through the episodes and spot, “We’ve seen that plug-in snowman too many times. We can’t repeat ourselves.”

MF Editorial thievery aside, do you have regular tone or story meetings?

Brenna Rangott: No, we would have screenings. A lot of screenings. We’d hire out Soho screening rooms and watch all the episodes back-to-back. If we didn’t do that, then we’d watch them in one of the rooms, because we had a nice room with a big telly screen. We’d sit there, watch the episodes, and then talk about it. 

Matt Chesse: It was a very healthy atmosphere. I like to reflect on the show. It’s funny when you’re working on your own episodes and they are two episodes apart from each other. You forget what the other characters are doing to an extent. You get wrapped up in your thing and then you go in and watch it and go, “Oh my gosh, what’s she doing in there?” or “They’re a couple now?”

Brenna Rangott: Ordinarily, you would do more sequential episodes. It’s a block of episodes one, two, and three or four, five, and six and you’ve got your own little section. But in this show we were staggered. 

Matt Chesse: We did share a few story beats of the Wheeler case. That story was peppered throughout. It had a bit of a Rashomon thing. It was different every time you went back to it. Different stuff was revealed. So we had to share that. And since it all paid off in episode six, Brenna was kind of in control of those things. If she updated it with Issa, those changes would ripple down and we’d have to share that. 

Another thing that was passed around was the phone call from Annie that gets recorded when she’s in the ice cave. If that evolved in somebody’s room, the assistants had to distribute it and we had to modulatory link it up so that everyone always had the same phone call going.

Otherwise, Issa was the tastemaker. She was going to all three of our rooms and making sure that everything was in sync in terms of tone. But we were working independently and then we’d get together at our screenings. I think Florian Hoffmeister, our incredible DP, did a great job setting a look. It would have been hard for us to knock it together and have it not flow, you know? Between Issa and Florian, there was a consistency in the material, right? 

Mags Arnold: For sure. Having the same director in the same DP absolutely gave the show a nice cohesion. 

Brenna Rangott: I’ve worked on shows where I’ve gone back and watched a different block with a different director, different DP, and different editor. I’ve watched them and thought, “This feels like an entirely different program” whereas this show had a consistency to it. 

Matt Chesse: It really did.

 MF: You’re unpacking this story-within-a-story over time, the backstory between Danvers and Navarro. You do things through flashbacks and you have “Twist and Shout” coming back again and again. Is there some fluidity to how much you reveal beyond how it’s written in the script?

Brenna Rangott: Some flashbacks organically made their way into the edit as the series progressed. Those were places where we felt like it was helpful to nudge the audience. But as far as “Twist and Shout”, that was all very much in the script. It was very intense. It wasn’t an afterthought by any stretch of the imagination. But there were moments where we needed to add more of it to give the audience an idea of its link to everyone’s past traumas. There’s a sort of cross-pollination of traumas coming into reality and “Twist and Shout” is a good example of it. We wanted to hit on it to give the audience an idea that Danvers associates that song with her past trauma. There were a few more moments where we added it where it wasn’t scripted. 

Matt Chesse: And we had to dial the Wheeler thing as it found its place and was saying what Issa wanted it to say. It was sort of expanding and contracting down the line. Episode six was the control point that told us how much we needed, how much we knew, and when we knew it. So we reverse-engineered it from episode six. But there were a couple of flashback links between episodes that evolved as we went along. Issa would have a flash down the hall and then she’d run into my room and say, “We’ve got to change this here because we can’t know this yet!” So as an editor, I had to scrub my mind of it and say, “Okay, I don’t know what happened yet. So how would this feel?” You had to give up stuff that you’ve been working on or that you borrowed from somebody else. 

It was a cool process. People would slip stuff under the door and I’d have to craft it into my episode. I think that’s the way it has to be on something like this. It’s like you’re having a dialog throughout the show with these elements and you have to work it where it happens. 

MF: Bren mentioned being helpful to the audience, which is typically what you want to do. You’re the first audience. You want to make sure that everything is as clear as possible. But in a situation like this, you’re also misleading the audience. You don’t want everything to be on-the-nose. You have a lot of different threads going on throughout this series. Some end up meaning a lot and some just sort of stop.

Brenna Rangott: And some are entirely open to interpretation. 

MF: Exactly. Are you conscious of that? Are you thinking about that?

Mags Arnold: Oh God, yeah. 

Brenna Rangott: Like overcooking too many things. 

Mags Arnold: We talked about it so much! 

Matt Chesse: Issa’s interpretation of those things and how important they were and where they landed might be different than anybody else’s. So you’d come to her worried about something and she would say, “That doesn’t matter. That’s not important. I’m not so worried about that” whereas we felt like it was very important. It was her ball of yarn to kind of play with and she was happy enough with some things being this clear and other things being not so clear. And we would have to settle down and adjust to that. Don’t you guys think so?

Brenna Rangott: Yeah, that’s fair. We had to figure out how to toe the line because this show plays with fact and fantasy. That’s Issa’s style. She’s got that wacky brain. She wanted to push things more towards fantasy than facts. So how do we tow that line? The big question is, can every weird and wacky scene be explained logically as well from a supernatural point of view? Or interpreted from a place of trauma? So it was about finding that line and making sure everything could be explained.

Matt Chesse: Not beating things over the head, leaving things for people to interpret and talk about after the episode. I think Issa had a great sense of playing with that. She knew what to hang on to, what to hold back, what to pay off, and what to let go. It seems like she had great taste because everybody loved the show. I didn’t have people afterward asking me to explain things to them. I think the takeaways were solid.

Brenna Rangott: Some moments are meant to be ambiguous. Issa openly says, “I want the audience to take what they want from this story.”

Matt Chesse: I don’t want to mislead anybody. There is a point in the conversation where an editor is asking a director, “What does that mean? Are we getting more of that? Is the audience going to get it?” So there were negotiations in terms of that stuff. That’s what the process should be.

Mags Arnold: I felt like I was the one going, “But this doesn’t make sense! The audience is going to feel cheated” and Issa was saying, “No, no, no.” Then we would knock on each other’s doors and say, “I’m worried about this, tell me what happens in your room. How are we going to solve this?”

We’d have these very rigorous discussions and then we’d present it to Issa. She was great about that. If you explain something to Issa, she’ll go, “Just do it.” Sometimes I’d have an idea and say, “Look, I haven’t talked to you about this, but I think…” and then I’d present the idea and she loved that. Issa was always open to reviewing ideas. We’d go, “Well, we’ve all discussed this” and she’d go, “Alright, let’s try. I’ll let you have that.” In the end, it was sort of incremental. We’d go a little bit more to the literal side and then a little bit more to the mystical side. I think we landed on the right kind of percolation because there was such a rigorous back and forth. It was al dente, you know?

MF: The show takes place in Alaska during the winter, so it’s the polar nighttime. You basically never see the sun, and there’s kind of a parallel there for editing. I want to focus on the impact that has on the story itself. Pacing and establishing time frames is a big part of the editing and storytelling process. But when the sun never comes out and every scene looks like night, does that make it more difficult to establish a rhythm for how time is or isn’t passing in?

Mags Arnold: It was quite challenging. 

Brenna Rangott: It was freeing in some ways because the time of day didn’t stop us from putting scenes together because everything was at night. We didn’t put the dates in until reasonably late in the editing process, didn’t we guys? Halfway through or something?

Mags Arnold: When we got to post.

Matt Chesse: And we don’t over-date it. Storytelling-wise it made it easier to move things around because you weren’t locked into it being a particular day or night. Sometimes people have a cup of coffee in the morning, so you can tell it’s daytime. Other times, they’re at home having a drink and you assume it’s night. But there was a certain sameness that made it more flexible. I moved a lot of stuff around in the first episode to let Danvers and Navarro take it a little more because the structure was quite ping-pongy originally. You felt a little ripped away. You wanted to soak them up a little more. I was able to move things around and not worry about day or night because it was always dark outside. That was a bonus. But you don’t want people to lose the number of days that have elapsed. You don’t want it to lead to any confusion. 

It’s a cool thing in that it lets you flow and have a slightly less structured thing that you’re locked into, but you can lose the time frame, much like being in Alaska with no sunshine. We didn’t want to do that. So we did pinpoint certain days along the way. 

Mags Arnold: When they get the ‘corpsicle’, Danvers talks to Ted Connolly and he says, “You’ve got forty-eight hours before they get shipped off to Anchorage.” So we had to construct a feeling that that one day had ended and another had begun. The audience needed to be aware of the fact that the clock was ticking in this investigation and there was a time limit to getting all the information they needed from these bodies, including the autopsy in episode three. 

But I suppose you guys are right. There was a freedom to move things around. Firstly, there was no day or night in terms of the lighting. It was all the same. But also all the characters were often wearing uniforms. That was useful. You could bunch stuff together. But Matt, I remember you came up with a word, a phrase, that Issa announced to us, which I thought was great.

Matt Chesse: I think it was clumping.

Mags Arnold: Clumping! Everyone should know about this. It’s called clumping. It’s when, instead of cross-cutting between characters, you go to two different characters playing their scene and then you come back, which is how it was written, just to keep it exciting. What we started doing was clumping things together so that you could get a sense of being with these characters a little bit more.

Matt Chesse: A lot of times you watch a show that has multiple characters and there are certain things you’re more into than others. But you don’t want the audience to have that feeling of, “I don’t want to be with this person right now. I want to stay with that person.” You want to feel like you’re cutting away at a point that seems organic in terms of interest level and comprehension of the story. 

It’s kind of like Zelda, the video game. You’re on a journey collecting little clues and putting them in your sack. So you’ve got a bag of gold or a sword and you’re saving these things. So you’re going through the episode thinking, “I should remember that. That seemed important.” You have to lay that breadcrumb trail out for people in terms of their interests and allegiances to the characters so that they’re bonding with this entire town that they have to meet.

“Oh, that’s her daughter from a previous relationship. But now she’s a single parent, even though that’s not her kid.” You’ve got to let that soak in and let people put that together at the right time. What is their relationship? How are Leah and Danvers connected? We don’t say it overtly. You have to have those ‘reveal’ scenes close enough together that you can track them. If you put them too far apart then you’ll forget how everything’s connected.

That’s the strength of being the editor, getting to be the first responder. You’re the first audience member. You’re selling it to yourself first. So, whether the director feels a certain way or not, you can use that as an excuse to say, “As the audience member, I feel like I need to know this now. Can we try this over here?” You have to make it make sense to you before it can make sense to other people. 

MF: For those following along at home, that word again is clumping. 

Matt Chesse: I’m working on having it trademarked. Are we doing a clinic on clumping at the next ACE gathering? 

You have to make it make sense to you before it can make sense to other people. 

MF: Knowing that this footage that you’re working on is visually and thematically very dark, does that wear on you psychologically? Do you take it with you outside of the editing room?

Mags Arnold: Yeah, I think you do. I’m currently working on a comedy, which is great for this time of year because it’s miserable outside. We’re in London and it’s raining and gray. We’re getting a little bit of light longer in the day now, but it’s still pretty grim. Having something light that you can watch all day and laugh at helps. You definitely get pulled into the shows you work on.

I’ve worked on things that are quite dark and they do get into your psyche a little bit. But this one was different, I think because there was always laughter after the cameras cut. Everyone was always having so much fun. So I didn’t feel the pull of the story bringing me down because on set there seemed to be a very clear boundary between when they were working and when they’d stopped. 

There’s a scene on the cast and crew tape they played at the wrap party. Danvers walks into the scene of the car crash on the glass. I don’t know if you remember that. And as soon as the camera cuts, she starts doing this silly little dance. So it was hard to be depressed. But no, it has happened to me in the past. I’ve worked on films which were quite dark. 

I remember cutting a scene for a film where a guy was punching a woman to death, and you literally saw the blows landing on her face. That was extremely disturbing. I don’t want to do that sort of thing again. That one stayed with me.

Matt Chesse: Do you feel that, Brenna? 

Brenna Rangott: During lockdown I was working on a horror film called Host.

Mags Arnold: Oh God! I couldn’t watch that film. 

Brenna Rangott: It was one of those sort of working-twenty-hours-a-day type of jobs. And I was starting to imagine strange things happening over my shoulder. 

Mags Arnold: I couldn’t finish it. I couldn’t finish it. It was a terrifying film, Brenn. 

Brenna Rangott: Shadows and things got to me. But I agree with Mags on this. There was so much sort of joyful material on either side and so much joyful discourse with people in production that didn’t get us down, did it?

Matt Chesse: When I’m cutting darker material, I find that the joy of editing, whether it’s a scary scene or a comedy scene, supersedes the tone of what I’m working on. It’s kind of like when I watch a Mike Leigh movie. No matter how heavy a Mike Leigh movie is, there’s something about the fact that they got together and made it that’s amazing to me. The artfulness of it kind of transcends. Or there’s Happiness, the Todd Solondz movie, where you think, “God, this is wrecking me” but also, “Wow, that’s what they decided to do.” None of those people went through that, but they acted like they did. And there’s something about that. The creative process tends to transcend tone for me. The activity of editing is generally pretty buzzy.

Brenna Rangott: Happiness did not do that to me. It ruined me. 

Matt Chesse: I know, but I remember that was a movie where the people I came out of the theater with were wrecked and I felt like, “No, that was amazing because look what they decided to do. Look how hard they worked to depress the shit out of us like that.” There’s a joy in that activity itself. And I would say that Mike Leigh movies always do that to me. 

Mags Arnold: Also, it’s different when you’re working on something. You’re making it, so it’s contrived and you’re part of that. I say I don’t like watching horror movies, but I don’t mind working on them because they’re not scary when I work on them.

Brenna Rangott: Because you’ve got all the moving parts. 

Mags Arnold: Yeah. It’s when I watch someone else’s horror movie, then it terrifies me. But I’ve made horror movies, and they’re great fun. It’s all technical. And then you go, “Wow, they actually got scared!” It’s amazing. It’s magic, you know? 

MF: So if anyone out there is making a horror movie, give Mags a call. 

Mags Arnold: Yes, please call me.

MF: My research could be wrong, as it often is, but I found a pattern. The first couple of episodes of Night Country have seven needle drops. Then there are five for the next two and four and then three for the final two. So the number of needle drops goes down throughout the series. Again, I could be wrong. 

Brenna Rangott: Well spotted.

MF: Does that pattern mean anything in terms of how the story influences the space for things like needle drops or the need for them? 

Brenna Rangott: We did a couple of needle drops in episode six. But since we’re talking about the backward-engineering of things, it felt like, by the time we got to six, we had established a lot of this stuff. We were already entrenched in the story of Danvers and Navarro. When we were trying different needle drops into episode six, it felt intrusive. It felt uninvited at that point. I don’t think anything you noticed was intentional. 

Matt Chesse: The needle drops decreasing is probably a tonal thing. We wanted to give the audience time to process. It also might be in the writing. The previous episodes had sections where you needed a song. Sometimes there wasn’t a lot of activity or dialogue going on. I think Issa is fond of needle drops. I think she increased the number of needle drops that HBO expected exponentially. There was a lot more music than maybe they had anticipated, and that was important to her. 

She drove that, at least in my episodes. She would go home for the weekend and come back with new playlists and we’d be flinging out songs all over the place. Eighty percent of that music came from Issa, and she instructed us where to put the songs. “I want this to be a needle drop moment, I want this to be a tune here.” And those didn’t change that much. She stuck to her guns. Sometimes we swapped the songs in and out, but that real estate was always dedicated to a song. She was very clever. I thought she pulled off some great stuff. 

Brenna Rangott: When Issa writes, she listens to music as well. So a lot of the music that’s in the show was something that was on when she was writing the scene. She’d say, “Let’s try this piece of music here. I was listening to it while I was writing.”

Matt Chesse: Sometimes you get stuck on a song. You get an idea, but then you can’t get the song and the director won’t have another idea. It’s kind of frustrating. But Issa kept rolling with it. When we would get locked out of a song, she’d come up with a B track and then maybe the A track would free up. But she was very engaged. I don’t know how you guys work, but I usually do a lot of the needle drop digging around. I supply a lot of songs. But I didn’t have to do that at all on this. 

Mags Arnold: It was all Issa. 

Matt Chesse: As with most things, she was very voracious. 

Mags Arnold: She knew what she wanted. 

Brenna Rangott: Yeah, she did. I loved that song you guys had in the credits of episode four. It was a haunting version of “Twist and Shout”. What was the name of the artist that sang that for us? I can’t remember

Matt Chesse: Sue pulled that together. I think Sue found the artist. We were looking for a particular vibe of “Twist and Shout” that had never been recorded. We wanted it to sound like a mental breakdown or very emotional and raw, a woman alone, kind of keening. That was something we had to seek out and get laid down. 

Brenna Rangott: Yeah, it ended up working well. I remember we were scratching around, trying to find something that worked for the big scene in episode six. It’s when Danvers finally breaks down crying and Navarro consoles her.

Mags Arnold: That was lovely.

Brenna Rangott: It’s a big shift in tone. Both of the two characters have gotten to a definite place. There’s this lovely pull back shot, and we were struggling to find something that was hitting home. And Issa came in and said, “I know! We’ll use the same “Twist and Shout” cover from the end of episode four!” It was perfect. 

Mags Arnold: When they work, they work, don’t they?

Matt Chesse: There’s a scene midway through episode four where Navarro gets beaten down by Ace, the truck driver guy who gets knocked out in the first episode. She kind of needs somebody to beat up or to get beaten up by when her sister dies, so she goes and confronts him and gets the shit kicked out of her. 

I think we had several songs in there. That was a real derby. I think we ended on a Moby song that was very spiritual and had a gospel feel. But for a while, there was a Bjork song in there. They all worked. I would get stuck on them and sort of tune the cut to them and then they’d say, “We can’t license that” and we had to pivot. 

Issa was much bigger than I was about changing songs. I would think, “That will never work” and it always worked because she has great taste. We wanted the music to be a counterpoint to the violence, so we dropped a lot of the sound out. We went to this very spiritual, transcendent Moby track, which then washed over us. It just works. I loved playing up the needle drops on the shows. 

MF: There are a million aspects to this show. But there is one burning question I have that I have to ask before we go. And that is, Matt, why do they call you a Chalky? 

Matt Chesse: Nobody wants to know that. 

Brenna Rangott: We used to have our screenings at the Soho Screening Rooms. One of the projectionists is a guy called Chalky. So we were talking about, “Yeah, I’ve spoken to Chalky and we’ve got to do a test to see if we can run the episodes back-to-back” because we were having a screening for HBO. And then Matt went, “I like the name Chalky. I want to be called Chalky.” And we said, “All right then” and we started calling him Chalky. 

Matt Chesse: Please call me Chalky. And it stuck. Chalk and Chesse. 

Brenna Rangott: Chalky cheese. 

MF: I am relieved to hear that, Matt. Knowing you as I do, I was sure it was something dirty.

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.

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