How The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel‘s Emmy-Nominated Editor Gave Midge her Sparkling Start
Timing is everything, or so the saying goes, in comedy. This is just one of the lessons the truly marvelous Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) learns on her journey to develop a stand-up set when her personal life hits turbulent times. That timing is particularly brisk on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The show was created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, known for writing the breakneck dialogue of Gilmore Girls. The new Amazon series is sharp, witty, and well calculated to convey the ups and downs of taking chances and striking out in a male-dominated profession.
Editor Brian Kates received an Emmy nomination for setting the tone in the series premiere. The pilot episode establishes the decay of Midge’s marriage, an awakening of her untapped and innate talent, and the lavish world of a successful family in 1958 New York. It’s bubbly, sensitive, and dazzling like Midge herself. Kates packed a lot of TV into 58 minutes and made every comedy bit feel like it was happening live. With Kates’ help, Midge’s career gets off to a smashing start without ever missing a beat.
Can you start with a high-level overview of your work as an editor? Are you choosing the best pieces from multiple takes?
I see my job primarily as a builder. I have to understand how shots are constructed and build many versions of the same scene. Yes, it’s about selecting the best pieces from multiple takes, but also individual lines, words, bits of camera movements and color. Odd and surprising things. When I watch dailies, I immediately begin pulling what’s interesting so that I end up with a timeline of selects, which then has to be re-ordered and culled. I like ending up with something built the very first time I go through footage so that I immediately have something new to react to.
Eventually, with guidance from and close collaboration with the director, we figure out how the scene is supposed to feel in the context of the whole. Everything from the tiniest micro (Whether a word should be said with a rising intonation or a falling intonation) to the largest macro (What does this scene do? Why is it here? What if it were somewhere else or gone altogether?)
Comedy is so dependent on timing and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel nails it. How do you navigate those beats?
It was definitely a collaboration with hilarious performers and a hilarious creative team, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino. And, of course, Amy wrote a hilarious script. Take this scene:
Joel (Michael Zegen) says, “I need to leave.” Midge replies, “But tomorrow’s Yom Kippur.” Joel says, “I’m not happy!” And Midge answers, “Nobody’s happy, it’s Yom Kippur!” I mean, it’s irreverent and wry and wicked and sweet at the same time. I would literally find myself laughing at the takes. That’s how I knew it was funny, but it’s the funniest when we chose the right take, the right line reading, the right pace of delivery, the right shot composition.
In the pilot we see Joel flop on stage, then later Midge has a super successful set. How were those edited differently to convey the audience reaction?
It’s about calibration. Midge isn’t a hit right off the bat when she starts. She’s drunk. She’s wet. She’s come in off the street. Her husband’s left and she’s in shock. She needs validation. There’s a bunch of strangers in the audience and they shouldn’t know whether Midge is doing a schtick or having a breakdown, so we had to calibrate the laughs from zero to ten as Midge earns the audience’s trust.
Joel’s set was the reverse. His audience is game when he begins, but with each failed joke we had to stretch the awkwardness, by slackening the pace between jokes. We cut to Imogene (Bailey De Young) awkwardly straightening her hat. We cut to Midge dissolving from a hopeful smile to panic. And since the most important idea in the scene is Midge losing confidence in her husband, that shot of Midge was the tightest close-up in the scene.
Amy and cinematographer M. David Mullen designed those shots beautifully, and Rachel Brosnahan and Michael Zegen landed those emotional beats. When the baton was passed to me, I also had to make each moment as clear and concise as possible. No clutter. Ron Bochar’s sound design was a big part of that too. Calibrating the texture of the audience’s reaction so that it tells a clear story.
As the editor of the pilot, you had to set the pace and it’s a pretty brisk pace. What did you consider in striking the tone of the show?
Amy and Dan encouraged me to compress, compress, compress. Take out as much air as possible between lines, moments, even syllables at times. Comedy tends to be funnier when faster, but of course, that’s not the whole story. Once we did that, we worked hard to open up pauses in only the most meaningful spots, because when the dialogue is moving that quickly, a change in rhythm is even more exposed. An example of this is the scene where Joel leaves Midge. She responds to Joel’s challenge with very funny quips, so we followed Midge’s semi-denial and keep the scene skipping along. But when Joel says “I just don’t want it”, it’s clear he’s really going to move out, and it was my job to emphasize that by slowing down the pace and giving Midge a silent moment. It’s brief, but there’s a world of meaning in that punctuation.
What is a technique you use in your work that audiences might not understand or expect?
Music editing is one of my favorite parts of what I do, and it’s rarely understood because it’s even more invisible than picture editing. Basically, you edit the picture to maximize certain needs: a clear story, coherent emotion, spontaneity, visual excitement. If the scene also has music, the music will have to stretch or squeeze as the length of the scene changes. And sometimes you’re making 10-20 versions of a scene. But the music has to sound pure and untouched no matter what you’re doing to mangle it. Stealing additional phrases, changing the tempo, changing the key, ending it or starting it abruptly or in odd places. I love that work because it’s pure structure: No actors, no story, no visuals, just structure. When I do that work I feel like I’m inside the soul of the scene. On the pilot, I collaborated with one of the best in the biz, music editor Suzana Peric, which was a gift. Plus, I got to edit music by Barbra Streisand, Peggy Lee, Blossom Dearie, and Connie Francis. Great, classic music.
What informs your editing style for a project? Do you start with the script or work strictly off the footage?
I read the script and then try to ignore it while editing unless I have a question about the dialogue or need to check something technical. Writing and cinema are two different art forms, so editing is in some sense always an act of translation. How do you convey tone through rhythm and shot selection, as opposed to a script which can indicate tone through words? That’s the challenge. As far as style, there was no way to not get a little dazzled by all of the associations the show brought up for me— borscht belt comedy, Hollywood Technicolor musicals, Bob Fosse’s film Lenny, Yiddish cinema, Joan Rivers. But those associations weren’t style guides. They inspired me, but Amy and the show have their own style and I had to be true to that. I give huge hats off to Kate Sanford and Tim Streeto, who edited the rest of Season One, because I don’t think there’s any stylistic inconsistency, or weak moment, in any episode. The quality of the editing and the storytelling, in general, is spectacular.
What scene were you most proud of on Marvelous Mrs. Maisel?
I really like the montage of Midge walking through Central Park, going to the Butcher shop, coming home, and checking on her brisket. Most of her footsteps are in sync with the song, as are most of the picture edits, and the middle section of the song fits perfectly into the dialogue section of the montage. That took a bit of jiggling around to make that happen, but Amy wrote and directed the sequence to feel choreographed like a musical number, so I wanted it to be precise. At the end of the song, Midge opens the oven door and I timed it so the sound of the door becomes the last “note” of the song- the final octave. I love invisible editing flourishes like that. When I see or hear that kind of stuff in movies and TV, it really makes me smile.