Interview with Emmy Nominated Editor on Mrs. America

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Editor Robert Komatsu just received an Emmy nomination for editing the pilot episode of Mrs. America titled "Phyllis." Aside from this nomination, Mrs. America received nine other Emmy nominations for Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie (Cate Blanchett), Outstanding Supporting Actress for a Limited Series or movie (Tracey Ullman, Margo Martindale, Uzo Uduba), among others.

With Virginia finally ratifying the ERA in January, and this being an election year, this project is pretty timely. We're extremely thrilled to exclusively talk with Robert and his work on the series. 
PH: Congrats on your Emmy nom for the pilot episode of Mrs. America, Phyllis! How did you get involved with the series?
Robert Komatsu: My agent, Jasan Pagni at WME, sent me the first two scripts because the show was interested in me. I noticed three things right away. One, the amazing cast! What show has Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Tracey Ullman, Elizabeth Banks, Uzo Aduba, Margo Martindale, Sarah Paulson, John Slattery, James Marsden, and more, all in the same show? Two, It was going to be mostly directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the team who had just finished Captain Marvel. Three, it was being created and written by Dahvi Waller, from Mad Men and Halt and Catch Fire. I edited on all four seasons of Halt, but I had never met Dahvi because I had started visiting the writers’ room on season three and she had left after season two to develop Mrs. America.
I read the two scripts, titled “Phyllis” and “Gloria,” and they were two of the best I have ever read. As soon as I got to the scene in the pilot where Phyllis verbally destroys the men in the room during a meeting with Senator Barry Goldwater, I knew I had to do this show. I finished the scripts and called my agent back to set up the meeting.
The initial meeting was with Anna and Ryan via Skype because they were in Toronto prepping, and it went great. They wanted me to meet Dahvi next. Dahvi was also in Toronto but she wanted to wait to meet me in person so it took a few days for our meeting to occur. The meeting with Dahvi was fantastic. It was an epic meeting where we reminisced about Halt and Catch Fire. We discussed story points in the scripts.  We discussed music. Apparently, the meeting went so long that the rest of Dahvi’s meetings had to be re-scheduled for the next day. I drove home from the meeting and about an hour later, my agent called to say I got it.
PH: How was it working with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck on this project?
Robert Komatsu: I loved working with Anna and Ryan. It could have been intimidating, considering that they were coming off of Captain Marvel, but they are two of the most laid-back, kind, and generous directors I’ve worked with. There are two of them and they are used to consulting each other on the set, but I never felt like a third wheel in the editing room. There were times where I edited a scene in a different way than they envisioned on set, but we’d stick with my version’s concept. In the cutting room, there were times where they’d want changes to go in one way, but I could always present alternative ideas. It was a great collaboration.
My background is in features. Anna and Ryan come from features, although they had directed a few episodes of television in the past. Our two executive producers, Stacey Sher and Coco Francini, come from features. No one ever said that we were going to treat this like a feature, but we definitely treated it like a feature.
Anna and Ryan shot Episodes 1 and 2 simultaneously. Every few days, I would send cut scenes to them for feedback. After receiving notes, I’d send revisions back to them and at the same time, I’d edit fresh scenes from dailies. We continued this process for the entire 25-day shoot, just like we would on a feature. In fact, when Anna and Ryan came into the cutting room to screen my editor’s cut, it seemed more like a first pass of a directors’ cut.
On a one-hour drama, the director gets four days in the cutting room to turn in their cut. Anna and Ryan had ten days. The thinking was that they would spend five days with me and five days with Emily Greene, who edited Episode 2, but of course they bounced back and forth between our rooms for a full ten days with each of us.
Anna, Ryan, and I spent a lot of time vetting performances. Cate Blanchett simply cannot give a bad performance, but she did give choices. Since she and the other actresses represented historical figures, it was essential to make sure that every performance felt true to the real person. Cate or Tracey Ullman might have given a version of a line that was amazing, but if it wasn’t faithful to what the real Phyllis Schlafly or Betty Friedan would have done in the moment, we wouldn’t use it. We used the same sort of vetting strategy for moments within scenes as well. In Episode 7, Phyllis gets pied in the face. That really happened! But we made sure to be careful so that the comedy played, but that we didn’t overdo it so it seemed like a farce, or that we made it up just for the show.
Anna, Ryan, Dahvi, Stacey, and Coco also booked screening rooms at Technicolor for friends and family screenings, another element of feature editing. We would get feedback from people who were not involved with our show. And then we could take that feedback to make revisions.
At a certain point during our producers’ cut, Anna and Ryan had to return to Toronto to prep Episodes 7 and 9, so I continued to edit with them remotely, using a system called Haivision, which would stream my Avid output so that Anna and Ryan could view it on a monitor in Toronto. We’d simply speak to each other on speakerphones at the same time they viewed the cut. Because I had so much time with them in person, it was an easy transition.
PH: What were some of your favorite moments from the episode?
Robert Komatsu: I mentioned before when reading the scripts that I loved the scene in the pilot where Phyllis crushed the men in the room during the Barry Goldwater scene. That was the second scene I edited in the show and the first one I sent to Anna and Ryan for feedback. It remains one of my favorite scenes. Cate gave an amazing fiery performance, with incredibly long passages of smart dialogue.
I loved the scene where Phyllis and her husband Fred are negotiating her running for Congress again. Cate and John Slattery had fantastic chemistry and Anna and Ryan choreographed the scene so elegantly. The scene starts at the bottom of the stairs by the entryway and the camera follows them up the stairs, down the hallway, into their bedroom, and then into their bathroom. Anna and Ryan didn’t want to use a steadicam for this scene but everything was planned out beautifully on how to get from one location to the other.
I loved the split-screen sequence where Phyllis is mailing out her newsletter to housewives to recruit them in her fight against the E.R.A.
And I really loved the last scene where we finally meet the feminists. The visual language of the episode changes, from very classical filmmaking to handheld chaotic energy that represented the feminists, playing to the song “Fire” by Etta James.
PH: What challenges (if any) did you run into?
Robert Komatsu: When we were about to start shooting the scene where Phyllis recruited other housewives to help her stop the E.R.A., Anna and Ryan called me to say they were planning on shooting it as a split-screen sequence. It wasn’t scripted that way, but it soon became a style for the series as a whole. To start a discussion about style, I created three different concepts and sent them to Anna and Ryan. This started a conversation and we eventually ended up creating one that evoked the original Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen. Our split-screens had panels of different sizes, arranged asymmetrically in the frame.
There were a lot of challenges when working with the split-screens. The biggest was that most of the split-screen footage wasn’t shot yet and wasn’t scheduled to be shot for a month or so. At first, I received a few shots of housewives opening and reading Phyllis’ newsletter. These were five minute clips because if we used one and then split the frame with another shot joining it, we needed the length so all the shots could stay on screen without running out of footage. I also had a few shots of names being typed onto mailing envelopes and a few shots of envelopes piling up. What I didn’t have were any shots of Cate Blanchett. I used what I had to build the first version of the split-screen, re-using shots and changing them to make them look like different shots, just for placeholders. I stole shots of Cate from the Goldwater scene. Eventually, more real footage came in, based on the template I created. Every new shot had a different framing from the fake placeholder I was using, which meant that every shot had to be re-keyframed for scaling, cropping, and position. Anna and I even got my wife’s name in the show as it’s typed onto an envelope. However, Anna pointed out that the name of Deborah Komatsu would never be in Phyllis’ Rolodex. Not even her maiden name of Rosenberg would be in her contacts. So Anna and Ryan filmed “Deborah Ko” being typed out and the rest of her name is off-screen. What I loved about this sequence was that I helped develop it and influence the additional footage that was shot.
Everyone loved the split-screen sequence and it started to be used in other episodes. In fact, by the time we got to Episode 7, the script called out for a split-screen sequence when our characters each get their delegate cards in the mail. That episode was also directed by Anna and Ryan and edited by myself. I didn’t want to repeat what I did from the pilot, so I evolved it from where I left off. At the end of the pilot’s split-screen, we have a shot of nine panels showing nine different housewives. Those panels individually cut to nine panels of Phyllis’ newsletter, the envelopes, and the typing. And those nine panels then cut to nine identical panels of Phyllis. The center panel expanded, pushing the other eight off the frame, until it was full frame. That’s where the sequence ended. So, for Episode 7, in terms of style, that’s where I started. This split-screen sequence was all about panels pushing other panels either halfway or fully off the screen. Or panels that flew off the screen to reveal other panels underneath it.
The other challenge involved the use of archival footage. This was another thing that wasn’t scripted but the producers did have an idea of a theme for each episode.
For Episode 1, Dahvi wanted to show the E.R.A. marches in Washington and footage around the time that Shirley Chisholm announced that she was running for President. For the E.R.A., I selected footage of Pro-ERA women marching in Washington and found good shots that were visually dynamic, using zooms and pans, that went well with the energy of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride.” It was placed as Phyllis gets out of a taxi in Washington and sees our actors as Pro-ERA women marching. I then cut to the archival footage, then cut back to Phyllis walking to her meeting with Congressman Phil Crane.
For the Shirley Chisholm section, although there was a lot of footage, I immediately gravitated towards a reporter that asked people on the street what they thought of a woman running for President. It was fun to cut their responses together, to juxtapose their opinions, and to even have one person finish another person’s thoughts.
While working on the pilot, we debated a lot on whether or not we wanted to have the archival ERA marches at all. It made sense where we placed it in the episode, and it had a lot of energy with the song, but in the end, we decided it wasn’t needed, and it broke the overall momentum. So we lost it.
The Shirley Chisholm section was never in doubt. We placed it after Shirley Chisholm announced her run for President. We cue the song “Fire” by Etta James and we cut to the voters on the street. The song’s energy then carries us to the feminist side for the first time in the series, along with the feminist side’s more energetic hand-held visual style. During editing, we cut out two voters’ responses for time, but other than that, this section never changed.
Episode 4 was tougher. Dahvi loved the “people on the street” footage so much from episode 1, she hoped we could do the same for Episode 4, with people giving sharp, short sound bites about their views on abortion since the decision for Roe v. Wade opens the episode. Unfortunately, we simply could not find that footage, no matter how many searches our archivist made. We did find experts giving their opinions on abortion. Although they were insightful, they were also lengthy. Ultimately, we used three experts giving their views in relatively short clips. I would never alter their words, but I did jump cut out their stammers and pauses. I then hid these jump cuts by tracking and blending the shots so they looked like regular archival shots.
Episode 7 was also a bit of a challenge. Originally, the theme was going to be the 1977 New York City blackout. I had cut together a sequence showing the riots, the looting, and the arrests. However, that storyline was dropped before shooting. Instead, we focused the archival on the run-up to the 1977 National Women’s Conference. The way it worked was that each state held their own conferences to elect delegates to attend the national conference. We had great archival footage of Tom Brokow explaining the process but after using it, Anna suggested that it was repetitive, since Alice explains it to Pamela in the episode. She says, “It’s kind of like the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest. Thousands of women in every state competing for a spot at the national competition to see who has the best recipe.” Instead, I ended up finding footage from the actual state conferences. Some were peaceful. Others were not. I made it a split-screen sequence where, for example, footage from a more confrontational conference might bump a peaceful state conference halfway off the screen. Finding a placement for this sequence became a challenge as well. There were several spots we could have placed it, but again, it was a question of momentum and flow. We ultimately decided to place it right before Alice, Rosemary, and Pamela arrive at the Illinois State Conference, where they are the minority in a mostly feminist crowd.
PH: Can you talk about why the project is extremely timely?
Robert Komatsu: Our show starts in 1971 and ends in 1980. Virginia just passed the E.R.A. in January of this year. In 2020, there is still a gender pay gap and the #MeToo movement has finally illuminated what was deemed “acceptable” behavior in the 1970s. We showed scenes where both conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly and liberals like Gloria Steinem were the subjects of “handsy” male colleagues. We touch on issues with Shirley Chisholm running for President and her political struggles that stemmed from not only being a woman, but being black. Although we have made progress, a lot of these issues still apply today. This is an election year. I hope our show can promote discussion before November.
PH: What’s your editing style? Any “dos” and “don’ts” for those who may be just starting out?
Robert Komatsu: Part of me wants to say that the footage dictates my editing style. And that is definitely true, but I’ve noticed over the years some recurring traits.
I tend to favor long prelaps of music so that something significant in the song hits at the cut to the next scene. I also tend to favor having a definite hard end of a song or hard end of a score cue hit on the last frame of a scene. However, sometimes I also like a very long trail off of a song or score cue to fade out really slowly into the next scene. What I do not like is just arbitrarily fading a song or score cue out as we end a scene. I’ll spend a lot of time music editing to make these things happen in my shows.
I love pre-lapping dialogue from one scene to another when appropriate, to help propel us forward in the story.
I also love imperceptible dialogue pre-laps within scenes. There are times when you prelap a lot of dialogue offscreen before cutting to the actor saying their lines and there are times when you cut to the actor first and then they start speaking their lines. However, more often than not, if I cut to an actor and then have them start speaking, it is very likely that I am actually having the actor pre-lap his or her dialogue by just a few frames. It provides a little bit of extra energy and charge in the scene.
I often create VFX split-screens. I’m not talking about the 1970s style split-screens that I made for the show. I’m talking about splitting the frame into separate elements, manipulating some of those elements, and then stitching those elements back into one frame, so that it looks like plain old footage that was never manipulated. Sometimes I might break the frame in half for a two-shot and slide one actor’s reaction earlier so that they respond quicker to the other actor. Or I might slide their action so continuity matches better. Or I might even combine two takes together if one actor was better from take 1 and the other actor was better in take 2. And then I would comp the shot together so that it looked like plain old dailies, without any post-production magic put onto it.
In terms of “dos” and “don’ts,” I say you should never disregard an idea without trying it. There have been many instances where a director or producer might suggest a wild idea that you might think would never work. We’re working on Avids, with non-destructive editing. Give it a try. There were many times that trying the idea paid off or at the very least, caused me to think of yet another idea. Also, embrace collaboration. Often your great idea “A” plus someone else’s great idea “B” will lead to a fantastic idea “C.”
PH: What are some of your favorite editing software? Why?
Robert Komatsu: Honestly, I mostly use Avid. It is still the dominant editing software in Hollywood so that’s what I know. I did use Final Cut Pro for the first season of American Horror Story. 
PH: How are you doing? Has your day-to-day changed since COVID?
Robert Komatsu: We were still working on Mrs. America when COVID hit. When it became clear that we couldn’t continue working in the cutting room, our post producer provided iMacs and local hard drives. Matt Crawford, my assistant, and the other assistants consolidated each editor’s media for their episodes. We were lucky that picture-wise, we were almost done. With a little organization and communication to keep track of who had what current sequence, I made changes at home and then sent those changes in a bin to Matt, who then cut them into the master sequence in the master project. There were a few instances of new shots that were created and of course we had to send each other the media as well. Matt and the other assistants worked from home using Team Viewer. Instead of having local projects, they would log into the actual project on our Nexus. This way, multiple assistants could access the project with less back and forth of sending bins. Matt could start a sound turnover and could then pass it on to Maureen Ross, our second assistant, to finish while he jumped onto cutting in new VFX shots that he received. Matt could then send me the VFX shots for me to review at home.
We also ended up finishing the mixes remotely as well. We did this in two ways. Sometimes, Scott Gershin, our sound supervisor, sent us quicktimes with the latest version of the mix, which we reviewed to give back notes. Other times, we streamed the mix while being on a Skype call, so that we could address notes live.
In the end, it was a very bizarre way to finish a show. Our premiere was of course cancelled. We couldn’t have a real wrap party, but we did have a Zoom celebration the day before our premiere.
I’m grateful that we were able to work that long into the COVID era. Now that I’m done, I’m focusing on spending as much time with my family, keeping in touch with friends, and drawing and sketching.
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