EMMY-winning editor of editor of Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives
Michael Berenbaum, ACE won two Emmys and two Eddies for Best editing for Desperate Housewivesand Sex and the City. His work also includes editing both Sex and the City movies, and other TV series including The Wire, Nurse Jackie, The Americans and Marco Polo. Art of the Cut interviewed Berenbaum before he spoke at the Manhattan Edit Workshop’s Sight, Sound and Story post-production event.
HULLFISH: You cut a bunch of feature films and you cut a lot of television. What is going on in television right now? Are you just as happy as an editor cutting TV as you are a feature film?
BERENBAUM: I’m just happy editing anything really. People ask, “What’s the difference between cutting a feature and a TV show?” It’s really not the way I approach the project or editing the scenes per se, it’s more about the politics of who you’re working with and for. On a feature your allegiance is to the director. You and he or she go through the entire process locked in a room together. Obviously, you have to deal with the producers and studio but your director is your cohort throughout. On a TV show, the directors don’t really have the power that they do on a feature. They come and shoot. They work with you for a few days and then they’re gone and you work with the producer to lock the shows and mix them. Usually, the producer is the show runner or one of the main writers. The studios and the network are involved but you work more with the showrunner than the director.
HULLFISH: That’s a tricky political situation, right? Because though your real alliance or allegiance is to the producer/showrunner there still has to be a temporary allegiance to the director because you are trying to achieve his vision, but you’re also the steward for the way the show goes together and you know how it’s supposed to work.
BERENBAUM: That’s exactly right. And a lot of times the director doesn’t. They’ll be in the cutting room and say. “Oh, let’s cut that line out. That seems a little draggy.” And I’ll say, “That is kind of the most important line in the show,” knowing what’s coming up in the next few episodes. In his director’s cut I will obviously do whatever he wants to do, knowing that two days later that line will come back once the producer sees the cut. Directors will watch previous episodes but they’re not really 100 percent in tune with what’s going on with the show.
HULLFISH: Do the politics or the different deadlines affect your approach to cutting the scene, between features and TV?
BERENBAUM: For me, personally, I’d say “no.” Every editor has their own way of working and when you work in television you have to learn to work very quickly. I find that when I go back to doing a feature it’s so luxurious: to have the time to experiment and try different things and screen them for people. You don’t get to do that on TV. The audience doesn’t see it until it is on the air, meaning there are no previews. Just the producers, maybe the writers and the network get to see it. They’re your audience and they’re the people who provide feedback. It’s just a much quicker process.
HULLFISH: So with your fast approach to the scene on a feature, where you do have that luxury, are you still working as fast with the same methodology? You just have more chance to experiment? Or do you slow down and take more time with dailies or spending more time on a specific cut?
BERENBAUM: I have to really, consciously think to slow down. I know that I will have plenty of time to do what I need to do. I set my own pace. I know where I need to be at any given point. I know the schedule. I know where I need to be by a certain date. So if I have a really big scene I know I can watch the dailies… ingest them… think about them… maybe put that scene aside and let it gel in my mind before I actually jump into it. And I’ll go back and do some shorter scenes that I know I can knock out pretty quickly. Then one day I’ll just be inspired to jump into that big scene. Get into the zone and just zoom through it. When you’re finished with production (principal photography) on a feature there’s a period of maybe a week or two after the last day of dailies before you’re going to show the film to the director. That is two weeks on a feature versus maybe two days on a TV show. You still want to get through the dailies and have a chance to put it together… watch it a couple times yourself, put some temp music in, some sound effects and just get it to an air-able state before you even show it to the director. That’s what the job has become; to get almost to a locked fine-tuned product before anyone sees it.
On a feature after you show it to the director you have 10 weeks to just work with the director and go through every scene again. On a TV show, for a half hour show, maybe you’re only with the director for two days, or four days for an hour show. It’s really up to that particular director how involved he wants to be. Sometimes I have directors come and sit with me for two or four days and sometimes they’ll just watch the show and send me an email with some notes or even just chat on the phone.
HULLFISH: I have a very similar approach as you with the bigger scenes where I feel like I need to sleep on them.
HULLFISH: Your brain needs to subconsciously work on that scene so you pick some easier scenes to do today. And then wait a day or more on that other scene. What is your approach? How have your assistant set up your dailies and what do you do?
BERENBAUM: My assistant sets up each scene in an individual bin. Multiple camera takes are grouped together. They’re sorted from first set up through A-B-C – however many setups there are. Then what I usually do is watch one take from each set up. If it’s multiple camera I’ll watch it in a split screen. Just to familiarize myself with what they actually shot; what angles I have to work with.
The hardest thing is deciding where to start. Unless there’s a big dolly shot that is obviously the opening of the scene, the hardest thing is to know where to begin. Knowing that things will probably change before anyone sees this, I just pick a shot to start with and then go through every take for the next line in the scene. What angle will be next? What’s the best performance for the next line? Without watching all the takes all the way through, I’ll just work my way through them line by line as I’m putting something together. Just try and get a cut together as quickly as possible, section by section line by line and then I watch it and I’ll see what is working and what isn’t and I make my adjustments to make it flow as best as possible.
HULLFISH: It doesn’t sound like you use selects reels.
BERENBAUM: I don’t. I know a lot of editors use stringouts; where they’ll have an assistant piece together each line of the scene in one long sequence so you can look at each take for each line by screening this one string out. Sometimes it becomes useful once the director is in the room. You can look at options very quickly. I tend to work so fast that by the time the assistant has assembled the stringout, I’ve already cut the scene and moved on. So I don’t use them very often personally, but if I have a scene where there is a lot of coverage, I’ll have my assistant break the shots down into subclips or stringouts just to make it easier to organize.
HULLFISH: I do talk to people that watch ALL the dailies before cutting anything. That could easily be 90 minutes for an entire scene. I find that when I try to do that I can’t remember what I’ve seen. I can’t wrap my head around 90 minutes of footage.
BERENBAUM: That’s exactly my take. I am not a good note taker. I agree with you. You have all this coverage – multiple readings of one particular line – and you hear them over and over again as you’re watching through all the dailies. I find it difficult to make choices as I’m watching the whole scene. So line by line and take by take I make my choices as I build my scene. So ultimately by the end of cutting that scene I will have viewed all of the dailies.
HULLFISH: I have a really granular question about that because I’m interested in your technique. I think I’m working a little slower than you might be doing and so I have two different ideas. I have a KEM roll where it’s all of the dailies in order one after another from action to to to cut or even beyond that. Then I break it down – not necessarily line for line but kind of in groups. It depends on blocking, for example, if somebody is in a room and they cross then I’ll say, “When they’re sitting on the couch over here just cut every take and setup for that section. And then when they cross over and sit at the table, let’s make that another section.” That way you can wrap your head around 20 seconds of the scene at a time. But it does require the time for me or the assistant to break that down. But it’s also awesome for when the director comes and he wants an alternate reading of a line.
BERENBAUM: That’s something that can be very useful. Also, ScriptSync can be a valuable tool when you’re going to be sitting in a room with the director for 10 weeks.
HULLFISH: Have you used that before or is that not a tool you like to work with?
HULLFISH: In your personal method, because of the speed that you’re trying to work, are you leaving marks as you progress through each take? On the source do you leave the timeline where it is? You mark an in so you know, “I’ve covered this part of the script” because otherwise on every single line and every single take you’d be trying to find the next line.
BERENBAUM: That’s correct. So I’ll mark an in and an out. My fingers are just kind of trained as it’s playing to hit in and out for that particular section. So that’s left up and I’ll rotate around through all of the other takes and when I get back to that take those in and out marks are still there. I’ll just go to the out mark and continue on from there. Sometimes I just can’t decide if there’s two or three takes that I really like and I put them all in my record monitor and just insert in each one into the prior shot and see how it flows and which one plays better with the shots around it then then eliminate the two or however many that aren’t working as well.
HULLFISH: How do you edit audio? Do you only use one audio track when you’re cutting your original rough? Or do you have an audio cut on a simple scene that’s seven or eight tracks deep of production audio?
BERENBAUM: I never work with just one track. On my current show (Divorce, for HBO) I have up to 16 tracks sometimes for each episode. For dialogue two or three tracks is all I usually use. I have a couple of tracks for stereo backgrounds and sound effects and a couple tracks for music. I usually use the mix track and I checkerboard. If a line or two happens to have been off-mic on the mix track. I’ll go back into the lavs.
HULLFISH: I’m interested in your bin view. Are you a Frame view guy?
BERENBAUM: Yeah. Frame view.
HULLFISH: So let’s talk a little bit about performance. It’s always something that interests me: not only the determination of best performance but why the editor needs to craft the performance. What situations might you – even with a great actor – need to help them?
BERENBAUM: Every actor – Good bad great – You always need to help along a little bit. There may be sections where they’re just on fire. And I tend in those cases to just let ‘em go. You don’t want to cut away. You don’t want to interfere. But even the greatest actors occasionally they’ll flub a line or repeat themselves and you want to keep the flow going. So you cut away to a reaction. Not arbitrarily but where reaction is needed. And under that reaction you can change takes, take out some air, make it flow. I mean that’s just the basics of editing.
HULLFISH: A lot of times – especially if the story has been shaped quite a bit in the editing room beyond what the script was – an actor might have a delivery where the context of it has been changed because of the edit, and then the editor needs to change what was a very good performance that now doesn’t work with the new storyline.
BERENBAUM: With some actors, they’re awesome on take one. Then they experiment to vary their performance but you know that their early takes are going to be their best. Other actors like to get into it and they’re just warming up on take one. So you have to go with the flow and adjust how you work depending on the actor and what the scene is.
HULLFISH: It can be tricky when you’ve got a scene where one actor is great on take one and the other one’s great on the last take, right?
BERENBAUM: When is that not the case? Yeah, that’s always what’s going on. What keeps it interesting is no matter how many times you’ve done it or how many projects you’ve worked on, every show is going to present its own set of challenges and problems to solve. And for me that’s what keeps me on my toes… Keeps me interested. There’s no phoning it in.
HULLFISH: With that in mind – how one actor is warming up while another is cooling off – how much faith do you put in the script notes of circle takes and best takes?
BERENBAUM: I’ll go out on a limb and say zero.
HULLFISH: That’s my take on it. I’m with you on this but it’s kind of dangerous to say, right?
BERENBAUM: Exactly. You don’t want people to know that you rarely pay attention to what they’re writing down. Things that are hilarious on set aren’t always hilarious when you watch them in dallies or when they’re in the cut. You make best efforts to acknowledge what the director liked best on set. But God knows that’s not always what works best in the scene. So you can’t just rely on that.
HULLFISH: The director’s own take of which take is best is very different sitting in a screening room or sitting in the edit suite than when he’s sitting on set.
BERENBAUM: Exactly. It’s hard to say that’s the best take because if it’s a three-minute take, it might be great for the last line or the first line but you have the whole rest of the scene where maybe the other takes were better for that section. You really have to scroll through everything that was shot to verify what you have. Down the road when you’re trimming things down, compressing, you go back and find a complete and utter mistake where they re-blocked the scene. Things are completely different. That’s what saves you because you’ve changed it so much that what they thought didn’t work on set and they changed it is what will work exactly the best when you come to your final version of your scene. Or the actors will have overlapped and the director will say, “No. Take your time there.” And you find that the overlap was exactly what was needed there. That happens more often than you may think. Sometimes there’s a camera bump or something that just adds a little bit of anxiety or it just puts the audience a little off guard and it may not have been good on set, but it’s that little bump that maybe takes the scene to the next level.
HULLFISH: Can you think of the last thing you learned about editing?
BERENBAUM: You’re always learning. There’s infinite stuff to learn.
HULLFISH: Do you find yourself doing splits on two-shots or wide shots to change pacing of performances?
BERENBAUM: Yeah a lot. If it’s an over the shoulder or a wide shot: On an over the shoulder and I have the foreground person with their arm up in the air and when I cut back to them their arm’s down and it just looks weird, I will do split screen. Find a section where that character’s arm is down and be able to fix the continuity. On a wide shot, I might have a character or a couple characters sitting at a table and somebody on the left side Is looking the wrong way when I want to cut to them next. You can just do a picture-in-picture and find the section with that character looking the right way and put it in. Just yesterday I had a wide shot where I had a character walking down a big set of stairs and a couple frames before I wanted to make my cut the director or somebody walked in front of the camera on the left side of the screen. I was able to erase them by doing a split screen for that section.
HULLFISH: I think there are a lot of inexperienced editors that would say, “Oh well, when the director walks into the scene, that’s when I have to I’ll have to cut to something else.” But if you don’t feel that’s where you need to cut, based on the pacing, then you have to find a way around that.
BERENBAUM: “Finding your way around that” is the subtitle for an editor’s job. You’ll have a director come in and say, “Can we lose that line? And it’s in the middle of a oner. Or it’s in the middle of a person crossing to the other side of the room. How do you get rid of that line without completely messing up the blocking and the continuity? Well, you’ve got to find a way to make it work. That’s what the job is. Find your way around that.
HULLFISH: I’m naming my next book that. I’ll be sure to credit you. You mentioned handing stuff off to your assistant. Do you find yourself handing sound effects or music or….
BERENBAUM: I do hand over to my assistant for sound work and sometimes they take the initiative and put in music. It’s great to see the cuts after they do their pass. It makes it easier for me to see the pacing of the scene and what maybe isn’t working so well…What needs to be sped up. The sound just gives you so much more information as to where to be and where to go.
HULLFISH: The sound does affect pacing.
BERENBAUM: Absolutely. Stuff that seems as tight as it could possibly be before you put sound in, becomes “Oh, there’s an extra 12 frames in there to get rid of. What was I thinking?” That happens all the time. I also like to give my assistants the opportunity to cut scenes and then look at them together and give some pointers. Sometimes they do stuff that is great that I would never have thought of and I’ll use parts of it and other times I’ll say “Try this, try this, try this.”
HULLFISH: What are some of the things that you found that your assistants are doing wrong? ANY advice?
BERENBAUM: A jarring sense of flow. Cutting for continuity. Slow pacing.
HULLFISH: Now the big question here is – when you say cutting for continuity – do you mean that they don’t cut for continuity or they’re too drawn to cut to continuity.
BERENBAUM: I think that’s the biggest mistake any beginning editor makes. You’re waiting for something to match to go to your next shot and in doing so you’re killing the pace. Walter Murch has that list of priorities and continuity is the last one. That’s really true. I think part of my job is being a magician where the hand’s quicker than the eye. My job is to say, “Look over there!” while I have a bad match over here. You can get away with a tremendous amount of bad continuity if the scene is moving and the scene is flowing and you’re involved in what’s happening. The emotion of the scene.
I had to cut a scene with four actors standing outside all smoking cigarettes. You can imagine the disaster with every cut whether the cigarette is in their mouth or their hand is by their side. I got a note from the studio and the executive said, “Is there a way you can fix that one mismatch in that smoking scene?” And I said, “So you didn’t notice the other hundred mismatches? Great!”
HULLFISH: So that’s one thing you mentioned: not necessarily waiting for continuity, but to cut when you need to – when continuity is correct. What are some other mistakes?
BERENBAUM: Being in the wrong angle. You know certain shots are shot because they’re complementary to other angles. Sometimes the eyeline will be wrong – not that eyelines always have to be right. Those rules are meant to be broken but you have to hide the fact that that’s what you’re doing and to have the scene continue to flow and not be jarred by what’s happening. Holding too long. It’s usually a pacing thing.
HULLFISH: I’ve heard that from multiple people. Even if it was moving along, the rhythm of it didn’t feel natural. Those are hard things to learn but it does help to have someone like you explain the problem and then when you recut the scene you watch the previous version and the next version and then you can detect how the pacing changed and what the benefit was.
BERENBAUM: Exactly and sometimes after they cut it I’ll send them back to recut it. And sometimes I will just go on my own and we’ll do an A and B and compare. For me, it’s helpful to see what they’ve done because then I’m able to get a better jump on the scene before I’ve even gone through dailies. I see what the scene is and I can see pretty quickly where I want to be and where I don’t want to be when I do my version.
HULLFISH: The mistakes actually help you progress. You talked about the advice or correction that you give to your assistants but the flip side is that the director comes in and gives us notes about what he thinks we did right or wrong. How do you handle those notes?
BERENBAUM: That’s something that, personality-wise, you have to be able to handle or learn to be able to handle, because it’s never the final version. When you cut it – as much as you think you captured it and nailed it – you know you have a bunch of other people who will be weighing in. They’re going to have different insights into what they’re looking for or different opinions. You have to be willing to try 100 different things. It’s very easy to get defensive about what you’ve done and sometimes I’ll know there’s not a better version than this; and depending on who that person is that I’m working with I can say that, or I just will do what they want and try as many different things as they want. And sometimes a director – and every editor has had this experience – the director or somebody will come up with an idea and you just think that is the worst idea I’ve ever heard. But you keep that to yourself. You try what they want and usually it doesn’t work. But a lot of times it leads to a third option that neither of you had thought of and that ends up being the best option of all. So it never hurts to just mess around with stuff and you can’t be too precious about what you’ve done. It isn’t always based on how you cut the individual scene. It’s based on the cumulative effect of the project.
HULLFISH: And that’s another interesting idea: the idea of pacing not just shot to shot within a scene but also the pacing of the entire story from the opening credits the closing credits.
BERENBAUM: Ultimately that’s where the magic lies. Somebody may say, “It’s boring about halfway through the movie.” What does that mean? Part of the job of an editor is to be able to say, “OK, they think it’s being boring in the middle of the movie. Why is that? Maybe there’s something happening about. 15 or 20 percent into the movie that’s slowing down the pace that’s affecting the middle of the movie.” And if you fix that earlier scene, maybe now the middle is not so boring. It’s really a lot of analysis. I think I’ve learned over the years and I’ve become much better at being able to look at something and say what’s not working. Why is it not working? What is affecting a scene that people think is the problem when it’s not necessarily the problem?
HULLFISH: In other words: that the note is valid but it’s not necessarily at the right point. Well, Michael, this has been very enlightening. Thank you for your time today.
BERENBAUM: Appreciate it. Thank you. Bye bye.
This interview was transcribed using SpeedScriber.
Thanks for Manhattan Edit Workshop for setting this interview up.