Editor Todd Downing was ACE-nominated for his work last year on Russian Doll season one. This year he has put his incredible talent into three episodes of the intriguing FX limited series, Mrs. America.
FX’s Mrs. America has earned 10 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Limited Series and Lead Actress (Cate Blanchett). Todd edited three episodes – “Shirley,” “Jill” and “Houston.”
PH: What was your start like in the industry?
Todd Downing: I started in New York, ultimately receiving my degree from the New School, where I learned filmmaking and editing from the Kuchar Brothers and Alan Berliner. After graduating I was making short, comical art films that played at hundreds of festivals, including The Berlinale, and screened at The National Film Theatre in London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. After moving to London in 2003 for a change of scenery, I fell into documentary editing for the BBC and Channel 4, tackling subjects such as the Syrian Civil War, homelessness and PTSD in soldiers returning from Afghanistan, ISIS and North Korea. I became one of the go-to guys for more somber docs and was nominated for three BAFTAs and won two Royal Society Awards.
I ended up back in New York after (showrunner) Scott King hired me to work on “Difficult People” at the dawn of Hulu. From there, my episodic work snowballed. Scott also brought me on to “SMILF,” and that’s where I met Leslye Headland, showrunner of “Russian Doll.”
Sometimes I compare the evolution of my career so far as going from tears to laughs.
PH: You worked on a few episodes of the FX limited series, Mrs. America. How did you get involved?
Todd Downing: A production executive at FX had seen “Russian Doll” and liked the editing on that show so they sought me out for “Mrs. America.” I cut episodes 3 (“Shirley”), 6 (“Jill”), and 8 (“Houston”).
PH: Can you describe your experience working on these episodes?
Todd Downing: The project was shooting in Toronto while myself and the two other editors (Robert Komatsu and Emily Greene) were cutting in Los Angeles. Once they were done shooting, director Amma Asante came back and we worked together on episode 3, which focuses on Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress and the first female person of color to seek the nomination for U.S. President from one of the two major political parties in 1972. Throughout the editing process, Robert, Emily and I screened each other’s cuts to better understand the progression of story, using music to punctuate the narrative and integrating archive material. Dahvi Waller and Stacey Sher wanted archive footage used throughout the series, so there was a lot of discussion about that up front. (Music Supervisor) Mary Ramos was also quite involved in the sound discussions for the show.
“Houston” was my favorite to work on because it’s so different from the other episodes. It focuses on Alice McCray, one of the few composite characters in the series, who is brilliantly played by Sarah Paulson and she’s in every scene. One of the big discussions was how far we would go with Alice’s hallucinatory “trip,” after she’s given “a Christian pill” by someone (at the 1977 National Women’s Conference). Dahvi and Stacey brought in the amazing Janicza Bravo to direct this episode, whose work is definitely more experimental (Atlanta, Zola), so I really got to flex my creativity. One of my favorite scenes happens about 20 minutes into the episode after Alice has taken the pill and there is a shot that’s several minutes long with Sarah Paulson talking on a pay phone to her mom about a recipe. To sit that long on a character talking about a recipe could be boring, but Janicza used that to her advantage, clueing the audience into the fact that something shifted, rather than doing some over-the-top psychedelic VFX. One of the best things you can do as an editor is NOT cut and let it play. I thought it was a brilliant idea to sit on her performance longer than usual to signal change.
PH: In ”Houston,” can you dissect Alice's journey?
Todd Downing: As she’s under the influence she witnesses pro-abortion speeches, a lesbian primal scream room, and learns Woody Guthrie is a Marxist; basically, everything Alice believes in is challenged. We wanted the audience to stay with her as she opens her mind up. Instead of going super “trippy” and calling attention to the editing, we did a lot with sound, jump cuts and pacing.
PH: Do you have a favorite scene you've edited? Why?
Todd Downing: I have a favorite type of scene – I loved the trippy stuff with Alice, but I think I like cutting two people in a dialogue even better. For example, when Alice is at the bar enjoying a Pink Lady with a woman she thinks is another anti-feminist, they talk about their lives for six minutes. It’s just shot, reaction shot, and two shot. Being able to pace something that simple and that long while keeping it interesting is always a great sense of accomplishment.
PH: What does it mean to you to be able to work on a show that tells the story of a feminist movement?
Todd Downing: It’s great because it’s important! There’s never been a show like this that explores feminism from the two sides and the grassroots effort that went into the Equal Rights Amendment. I studied film theory in college and was familiar with Chantal Akerman’s work, so when her film “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” had not one, but two references in “Mrs. America,” I knew this was the show for me.
I was also attracted to telling this story from both the anti-feminist and feminist POVs. The anti-feminists are definitely the antagonists, but we get to understand them. I also like that Dahvi and the writers didn’t turn the feminist side into a hagiography and didn’t shy away the problems in the movement.
PH: What other projects are you excited about in the future?
Todd Downing: I’m finishing a documentary directed by Greg Barker on the pharmaceutical industry right now. As they were filming, the global COVID-19 pandemic was upon us and gave the project a new light about the role of Big Pharma in our country.
And I’m really excited about the second season of “Russian Doll.” I’ll be glad to hear when production starts up again, which will hopefully be sooner than later.
PH: How has your day-to-day been impacted by COVID-19?
Todd Downing: I’ve been working from home like everyone else. My documentary background – run and gun experience – has come in handy since that seems to be the only productions going these days. We are all making the best of the creative process via Zoom calls and there is a lot of great technology for sharing work on an Avid, which is helpful. It can be slow at times, but it’s doable.