Interview: Editor Brian A. Kates Talks ‘Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ and ‘We the Animals’

One of the series that has a big night ahead of itself is “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” from Amazon Prime. The 8-episode drama follows Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) as she begins a budding comedy career following her husband leaving her. The show is incredibly sweet and moving, packed to the brim with both comedy and emotion. One of the reasons for that success is Brian A. Kates, who edited the pilot and helped the series get picked up by Amazon. Already an Emmy winner for “Taking Chance,” Brian sat down with me to talk about editing the ratatat dialogue of Amy Sherman-Palladino, editing drama versus comedy, and his upcoming film “We the Animals” set to release on August 17th, 2018.

Awards Circuit/Alan French: How did you decide you wanted to get into editing? 

BK: I grew up in the ’80’s and l loved Star Wars and the Spielberg films. I would make videos with my friends and I realized what I was attracted to was the construction. At that time, there wasn’t really home editing equipment to speak of. You would take the videotapes and transfer what you had from the camera to a VHS. If you were lucky enough to have two friends with a VHS, you could plug them into each other with RCA cables and record one to another. It was basically linear editing and you’d have to be very exact with your timing.

What drew me to that was that it was all timing, and editing is all about timing. When more sophisticated software came my way in film school, I was still interested in the idea of rhythm and how to get the emotion to show. All editors eventually need to fetishize about it, but it started for me when I was a kid.

AF: What would you say was your first big break?

BK: I would say “The Laramie Project” on HBO based on Moises Kaufman’s play and the Tectonic Theater Project. I would call “The Laramie Project” something that is part documentary, part drama. It follows the people of Laramie, Wyoming after Matthew Sheppard, who was a gay college student, is murdered. It also talks about the trial afterward and the way it shaped the town. The play was actually shaped from documentary transcripts and then collated and reenacted into a play.

I was hired to edit the HBO version of the play that Moises directed. It was the first time I worked on a serious drama and something that I felt was editorially exciting. So much of it was about construction, about the truth is subjective, about crafting an emotional journey through fragments of testimony, so it was extremely editorial. It was very emotionally rich and had elements of grace, forgiveness. It certainly a political point-of-view, but it was worldly and about all sectors of American life. Blending the hate and kindness was a very rich experience, and showcased that I had range in the industry, which was really important to me.

AF: Now you did the pilot episode of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which is different from “The Laramie Project.” How do you approach a comedy versus the dramas you’ve worked on in the past? 

BK: Well the skills are really the same. It’s about trying to find the emotion and construct these moments. In my career, I’d say a lot of what I do is comedy, but it’s not necessarily straight comedy. It’s comedy that’s tinged with more serious, human emotion. I like those sort of hairpin turns if you establish characters well enough to show the depth of how funny life is, even when life is tragic.

I have a long collaboration with Tamara Jenkins, where I worked with her on “The Savages” and recently we did “Private Life,” which is coming out in the Fall. That’s definitely her wheelhouse, which I’m really attracted to. It’s the comedy of difficult family situations. The story of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney taking their father to a home for dementia care before his death shouldn’t be funny, but life is funny.

I find that attracts me to “Mrs. Maisel” too. It’s about a woman whose husband leaves her for another woman in an era where this was extremely uncommon. It shouldn’t be but could be the death of a lot of connections and her place in society. Not only does Midge Maisel rebound from that, but she finds her voice and her place.  She also finds her career and a way to make money. In that case, the tragedy and the comedy are symbiotic.

AF: I love “The Savages,” it’s a great movie. I actually watched it my film classes in college. Now, how did you first come to get involved with “Mrs. Maisel?” 

BK: Well I was finishing up work on “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” from John Cameron Mitchell and we were finishing up our mix at Skywalker Ranch. Our post supervisor was Matthew Shapiro and he was just hired to be the post supervisor on “Mrs. Maisel.” He still is, he’s doing the series. Another link I’m sure was my agent. I got sent the script, and like “The Savages” you can tell the writer is absolutely in control of her tone. The sense of comedy is fantastic, and there’s a lot of pathos behind the funny one-liners.

There’s also a musicality that I’m very attracted to, including the use of songs and encyclopedic knowledge of music that Amy [Sherman-Palladino] and Dan [Palladino] both have. It’s a sign of a strong director with a knowledge of strong history, strong vision, and a strong palette. I really have to do this.

AF: One of the things that popped out to me is the story at the wedding. The pacing is so good. How did you construct that montage and make that time so efficient? 

BK: Yeah, it conveys her sense of humor and sense of self. It conveys little details like she’s a major in Russian literature, she loves her haircut, she has a very wicked sense of humor. There’s a lot of irony in showing what actually happened versus how she represents it. It was written that way, very efficiently. My job was to not be flat and keep this section moving.

It’s basically a stand-up routine. It’s a show about a stand-up comic that begins with a stand-up routine that isn’t obviously such because it’s her wedding speech. But it shows this woman can stand up in front of a crowd of several hundred and command a room. She might not make any money off of it, but it’s her gift. The script also bookends the script with her actual comedy routine. One side is not technically a comedy routine, and one begins her on the path to become a comedian.

AF: That brings up an important part of the script. Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Dan use dialogue that is so fast. Do you find it difficult to edit that ratatat style? 

BK: It’s so fast! But I love. The challenge with ratatat dialogue is that you have to know when to pause. If it’s all ratatat, then it becomes monotonous. You have to understand with Amy’s dialogue, along with my own sense of rhythm, what are the beats that you have to bury into your brain a little deeper? Those need more time. If that becomes the rule, rather than the exception, you ruin the pace. You have to think where those pauses are, and that’s to taste. A lot of time that’s my taste and Amy’s taste together. It’s also a sense of collaboration in spirit with Rachel (Brosnahan) because I’m taking what she’s giving me, and making choices about what elements to build from. I feel like I’m collaborating with her even though she performed it the day before.

AF: Can you tell me about the process of editing Midge’s standup versus Joel’s standup? 

BK: Well Joel’s first routine is successful, and it has a medium pace. You have to build the audience’s laughter for how well the jokes land. That’s a collaboration with sound design, and I have to credit Ron Bochar, who was the sound designer who had to figure out how to build the audience’s sounds.

Joel’s second performance is a bomb, so it’s very different. It starts off well enough, but as it goes on it has to become slacker and slacker. There are certain sound cues built into the performance, like the toilet flushing in the club, which indicate the depths of failure in that room. That was in the script and were pushed by choices Ron made, and I made. We had to be authentic at the same time. A weird sound or a laugh that sounds like a performance pulls you out of the scene. You have to feel it first as an audience member in your gut, and then suddenly hear the weight of the room respond. You don’t want to be led too much.

AF: What is the most difficult thing for you when you go to edit a stand-up routine? 

BK: The variety. I think that the way that the teams covered the stand-up scenes was almost documentary in style. We had several cameras and it was an exhaustive day of shooting. Rachel was unbelievable, almost athletic, in her endurance and ability to give so many options. We had so many shots too. We had wide shots, close shots, tracking shots. In some shots she was backlit, some were from behind her, some were of her against the wall.

All of those shots and compositions tell a different story. You have to decide how much importance to attach to that visual design versus the content of what she’s saying and where you are in the scene. Nothing should get in the way of that, and in our case, nothing should get in the way of hearing this woman’s words and her passion. That was definitely in my head when I edited that scene.

AF: I was also lucky enough to see one of your other projects, “We the Animals” back in April. I just want to say that I love it. It’s an amazing movie. How did you approach “We the Animals?”

BK: Again, editing is editing. It was about finding the truth in the emotional truth footage and holding onto it. “We the Animals” was incredibly precious to me because Jeremiah Zagar is a friend of mine. I knew him because I was a fan of his documentary “In a Dream” and he is a sensational editor himself. He, and Keiko Deguchi, are all three editors of “We the Animals.” Editor to editor, I had great admiration for him and his craft. Then I was one of the advisors at the Sundance lab when he was a directing fellow…

“We the Animals” was something that was personal to me because I was there when he workshopped it, built it, shot and edited it at the lab. Keiko is also a fantastic editor, so it was great to build something amazing and something pure from our artistic and friend community in an unpressured way. It was far away from the industry and very emotional. I’m really excited for people to see it.

AF: It was so interesting to me to juxtapose these styles. “We the Animals” feels almost dreamlike and hypnotic. You also blend in animation at times. It was such a cool experience. What were some of the difficulties of blending those genres together? 

BK: I love that stuff and that wasn’t the challenge. It was a privilege. Another way that Jeremiah and I connected was that I edited a documentary “Tarnation” from Jonathan Caouette that also uses collage. I think it influenced, or at least was respected by Jeremiah when he made “In a Dream,” because they have a lot of structural and stylistic similarities. “We the Animals” felt like an opportunity to stretch those muscles. The idea of collage and mosaic is like gold to editors. It’s all about construction and montage.

The trick is that you want the story to guide it, to undergird it so that there’s a reason that you’re cutting to these various mediums of live action versus animation or stuff like that. With “We the Animals” the story is extremely delicate and strong. It’s not coming from nowhere, it’s coming from a specific place. It’s this new young artist exploring his life through this animation. This isn’t the filmmaker being jazzy or showy. It should be a representation of this boy’s artistic spirit. If we did it correctly, the live action of his family drama and his inner life should weave together in a way that is coherent and emotional.

AF: You are one busy guy. You have “We the Animals” about to come out, and “Private Life” later this fall. What else do you have coming in the pipeline? 

BK: So I have something incredibly different that I’m working on now in a Podcast. John Cameron Mitchell, who is my longtime collaborator on “Tarnation” and “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” wrote a 10 episode dramatic original musical for audio. It has 30 original songs from Mitchell and Bryan Weller. The cast includes Cynthia Erivo, Glenn Close, Patti LuPone, Denis O’Hare, James Monroe Iglehart. It’s an epic cast of stage and screen, and it’s an epic tale. We’re all stretching to see if we can use our thematic skills and apply them toward pure audio. It has been incredibly fun, challenging, and beautiful at times. It’s a sort of deep dive into another format and it’s been kind of beautiful.

AF: That sounds so cool. What’s the title? 

BK: Well the series is called “Anthem,” and John and mine’s show is called “Homunculus.” So the first season is called “Homunculus.” Ben Foster is another person as well.

AF: Well good luck on the Emmys, I think your show is going to dominate. 

BK: Well from your mouth to Goddess’ ears. Thank you so much.

AF: No, thank you! 

What do you think of Brian’s chances at the Emmys? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below! 

“We the Animals” releases on August 17th, 2018. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” returns to Amazon Prime this Fall.