In our latest interview, we spoke with Geofrey Hildrew, the mastermind behind the editorial prowess of Netflix's upcoming series "Painkiller." Geofrey's creative vision as the editor of pivotal episodes one, three, and five invites viewers to embark on a cinematic journey like no other. With a unique narrative structure that unfolds in a nonlinear and nontraditional manner, he skillfully maintains clarity while ensuring audiences remain engrossed. As the series delves deeper into its discomforting storyline, Geofrey's editing artistry mirrors this unease, immersing viewers into the mindset of each character.
PH: Hi there Geofrey! Can you provide a bit of your professional background?
Geofrey Hildrew: Hello! Thank you for your questions. My formal film education began as an undergraduate at Columbia University, where I majored in English and Comparative Literature. While also studying film, I held two prestigious internships in development: one with the Steve Tisch Company in Los Angeles; the other with Barbara DeFina at Martin Scorsese’s Cappa Productions. During this time, I learned a tremendous amount about character and story.
Later, I graduated from USC, where I got my master’s degree in Film and Television Production, where I concentrated in editing and directing. My professional career started in reality television as an assistant editor, where I cut my teeth and eventually got promoted to editor. After working on a few dozen reality projects, I made the transition to dramatic television and feature editing. I’ve now cut over 100 hours of episodic television and three independent features. I’ve also worked as an episodic director and feature producer. I’m a member of the American Cinema Editors (ACE).
PH: What have been some of the projects you've worked on and how would you describe those experiences?
Geofrey Hildrew: The first high-profile shows I worked on were the Bachelor and Bachelorette franchises for ABC. Reality television sometimes gets a bad reputation, but it’s a tremendous place to learn the art and craft of editing. You’re dealing with tremendous amounts of footage, lots of different personalities, and learning how to craft a story. Ultimately, this experience helped me become a better dramatic editor because it taught me that there are so many different ways to approach material in the cutting room.
When I transitioned to dramatic editing, I didn’t assist long. Only a few short projects really. But while I did, I had a tremendous mentor in Marta Evry, who I assisted for. She really taught me the importance of sound, how it could be utilized in a non-traditional way, and how it could enhance the storytelling experience. We worked together on a project called DayBreak, for ABC – it was kind of like Groundhog Day meets 24 -- A cop, who’s framed for murder, keeps reliving the same day over and over again as he tries to solve the crime he’s been accused of committing. Because of the non-linear nature of the storytelling, we were able to experiment with some crazy / outside-the-box ideas (especially for the time).
I really love working in genre-fare. One of the longest projects I worked on was also a project for ABC called Once Upon a Time. I cut on the show for its entire seven-season run, as well as directed. Creatively I found this show very rewarding. It, too, had a lot of non-linear storytelling as episodes unfolded in multiple timelines. We also got to experiment with many different tones and story structures. It was also very VFX intensive. We were always challenging ourselves to push the boundaries -- to show the biggest spectacle we could on network TV. One week the challenge might be: how do we have Prince Charming fight a dragon; another might be what does Wonderland look like, and what are the rules of that universe; How does Little Red Riding Hood transform into the Big Bad Wolf? It was an awesome sandbox to play in, and I’m so glad I had that opportunity.
On the feature side, I’m extremely proud of my work. I’ve now collaborated with writer/director Charles Murray on two films, Things Never Said and The Devil You Know. These couldn’t be more different than the work I’ve done in the television world. They are intimate, intense character studies. The performances the actors give are very vulnerable and intimate – this is a tremendous responsibility for an editor. The work Charles and I have done together has really expanded my skills as an editor. Whether I’m working on a film or on TV, I really enjoy working in different genres and exercising different editorial muscles. It keeps me fresh and my skills sharp.
PH: Where do you draw your creative inspiration from?
Geofrey Hildrew: Inspiration can come in so many different forms. At the end of the day, I’m a super fan of film and television. Within reason, I try to watch as much as I can. There’s very little that happens in filmmaking that hasn’t been done before. But what can make a project fresh, new, and exciting, is using these established techniques and styles in unexpected ways.
I’m a music lover, and I especially love going to live performances. Music always makes me feel something, but hearing it live adds a visual component that adds layers and complexity. One of the things I also like about live music is that every performance is unique. A recorded song (or even a movie and TV show) is always the same presentation, it doesn’t really change. I like the unpredictability; I think it’s unique to the live experience.
On the note of unpredictability, it’s also what I love about the art of magic. I’m an amateur magician and member of The Magic Castle in Los Angeles, and I always find inspiration from the performances I see. Every good magic trick has three parts to it, right? You have the pledge, the performer shows you something ordinary. The turn is when the performer takes that ordinary thing and does something extraordinary with it. Finally, the prestige, when the performer takes the illusion to the next level, often in a surprising way. These are ideas I try to keep in mind when approaching material as an editor, because I think it makes for a more entertaining experience.
PH: How did you become involved with Painkiller? What drew you to this project?
Geofrey Hildrew: Eric Newman is one of the most talented producers and visionaries I’ve ever worked with. He’s a wonderful collaborator. This was my second collaboration with Eric, who I previously worked with on a thriller for Netflix called True Story. When we completed that project, Eric introduced me to Peter Berg, who hired me on Painkiller. I’ve been a huge fan of Pete’s work for a long time. I first became aware of his work as an actor, then later as a feature filmmaker and documentarian. His body and breadth of work are pretty phenomenal if you think about it. So, when this opportunity came about, I was humbled (and extremely excited) to be part of the team. It’s not every day you get to work with one of your idols.
The subject matter of Painkiller is also very personal to me. In 2019, my three year old son passed away. Shortly thereafter, my wife and I came to find a support group for grieving parents, and grieving siblings, called The Compassionate Friends. There, we got to know many families who had lost loved ones to drugs, often opioids. So, when Eric and Pete offered me the opportunity to be a part of Painkiller, I felt a tremendous responsibility to be a part of telling this story. It’s very emotional for me.
PH: Can you describe your creative process? How do you approach a new project?
Geofrey Hildrew: It all starts with the script and the initial reading. The first time I read any script, I always try to latch onto any sensory cues that I can. I ask myself questions like; how does this make me feel? What do I think the audience should be feeling at this moment? Is there anything stylistically I could do with this to help convey that sensation? Sometimes while I’m reading, I’ll start playing music, or even soundtracks, that remind me of what I’m experiencing. I’ll even start creating playlists to help inspire me. I often revisit those when I’m cutting dailies and piecing together my first cuts.
While in dailies, my cutting process is a bit tedious. When I first watch dailies, for every scene, I piece together a long “string-out” of all the usable material that has been shot. How I break this down depends on the type of scene it is. For example, if it’s a dialogue scene, I’ll put all of the line readings (from all the setups) back to back in a timeline, then separate them with locators. If it’s an action scene, I’ll do the same, but I’ll break it down by the choreography of the action – a punch, a kick, a fall, etc.
I started using this technique when I was working on complex action scenes that were often shot over multiple days. It was my way of compartmentalizing the material and organizing it in a way that I could digest. Eventually, I decided it was also a valuable technique for dialogue scenes as I could quickly compare line readings (and also had these handy later when addressing notes).
What I like about this method, more than, say ScriptSync, is that I’m forced to watch the dailies as I’m building my string-outs. During that time, I’ll start thinking about what performances I like and start formulating my cutting patterns. By the time I actually start cutting, I have a pretty good idea of how I’m going to approach the material.
Because I’ve already started thinking about music before dailies roll in, I’ll often pull up my playlist and start experimenting with different ideas as I’m building scenes. Sometimes I’ll intentionally cut with something I know is the wrong thing because It’s making me feel a certain way, knowing I’ll swap it out as I start putting together longer segments of the show. I’m always considering how sound and music will play against the picture while I’m cutting the picture. Once I have all my scenes assembled, I start combining those into longer sequences and then act, until I have the complete story.
PH: What did collaboration look like with you and the team?
Geofrey Hildrew: It was a small, but intense think tank. I cut the odd episodes (1, 3, and 5), while my colleague Garret Donnelly cut the even episodes (2, 4, and 6). During dailies, we were pretty isolated, cutting from our home offices. Pete would check in with us periodically to give us some inspiration and tone notes, but he mostly encouraged us to be creative with the material and think outside the box. I’ve said this before in other interviews, but his mantra was “be fearless,” so we took that to heart.
Once we had our editor’s cuts assembled, we moved into a more collaborative workspace at Pete’s office building. Our assistants worked remotely the entire time, so sadly, we didn’t have much face time with them beyond Zoom or Slack. We’d screen cuts almost daily for Pete. Garret and I would usually be in the room together to bounce ideas off one another. Eric Newman was also an invaluable sounding board. Some days we’d get through an entire episode, others, we’d concentrate on a challenging sequence. Pete isn’t the kind of director who sits there and dictates cuts – he wants to create an experience, and he wants to feel something.
Pete would often keep pushing us to experiment and think bigger. When we thought we couldn’t take the material any further, he was great about pushing cuts to their limit (and sometimes beyond) to see what might happen. That’s when exciting things would often happen when we explored the possibilities. Pete was a great protector in that sense, because he’d always know when we had crossed that line and was there to pull us back. It was about finding balance.
PH: Did you have a favorite sequence? Can you go into detail on how you brought it to life?
Geofrey Hildrew: There are so many favorites in Painkiller, it’s hard to pick one. One of the biggest challenges I remember was piecing together the ending of episode three. Edie (Uzo Aduba) is deep into her investigation, and has this “light bulb” moment. She’s seen all this before! She starts connecting her investigation to her personal story. This wave of information, and more importantly, emotion, overwhelms her.
In my initial cut, this sequence was much more linear and far less experiential. She examines her data and makes a connection (but the audience doesn’t know what that is yet). She takes her data to Brownlee (Tyler Ritter), and the audience learns what she’s discovered as she shows him the data. We now learn there’s a similarly historic pattern to the crack epidemic. Then we checked in with our other characters -- Dr. Gregory (John Ales), Glen (Taylor Kitsch), and Shannon (West Duchovny) -- as almost a button to reinforce what Edie had just articulated. It was effective, but it was a bit traditional.
Eric and Pete really wanted to move the needle on this. They wanted the audience to feel Edie’s rage and her urgency to do something about what she had discovered. Editorially, I needed to create a strong emotional experience. To do that, I started intercutting these storylines, building them in pace and intensity. I utilized news and stock footage to help amplify the scope of what was happening. Matt Morton composed a beautiful and intense piece of music for us here that segues into Screaming Jay Hawkins. It’s not traditional storytelling, but it’s evocative. I think what we achieved is something that really captures Edie’s attitude about what’s happening and her connection to it. It puts us in her shoes, informs us, and simultaneously breaks our hearts.
PH: As the story progresses, it gets more uncomfortable. How does your editing evoke that feeling? Like when a character goes into withdrawals. Can you talk about the editing techniques you conducted?
Geofrey Hildrew: The scene I just described is a great example of this. Another example is with Glen (Taylor Kitsch) in the breakfast / toothbrushing scene from episode 3. The sequence is very non-linear and impressionistic. As Glen is experiencing withdrawal, he’s having a sensory overload. We’re trying to put the audience in those same shoes. There’s a musicality to the way that the sequence is built around the sounds and sensations Glen is experiencing -- the rhythm of the toothbrush and his daughter’s spoon banging on the table. This all builds in intensity to mirror his emotional state until the tension is released by the popping toaster.
Another instance is Glen’s journey in episode 5. At the beginning of the episode, he’s using Oxy again and losing his grip on the lucid world. The phone call to his wife is presented very impressionistically, intercut with some abstract imagery to say something about his emotional state. After he fails to connect with her, Glen’s focus shifts back to his mission. So now, the cutting patterns adjust to reflect his shifting emotional state. Our cutting becomes much more aggressive and is stylistically like an action movie. He’s now a man on a mission, his goal is getting more Oxy. We use tempo and intercuts to help say something about that drive. Every time we check in with a new character, we wanted the cutting style to help create an emotional experience for the audience by mirroring the journey of our characters.
PH: Can you talk about any other challenges you encountered and how you overcame those?
Geofrey Hildrew: One of our biggest concerns, when we started working on the project, was making sure there was clarity to the various timelines and characters we were presenting. We tried lots of different techniques, such as graphics and chyrons, to help orient the audience, but ultimately found that they were distracting us. Edie (Uzo Aduba) as the reluctant storyteller, was the glue that held everything together. Whenever we check in with her, we always know where we are. Beyond that, I think the audience becomes so invested in each of our main characters that we stop caring about the “when and where”--- we just want to see what happens next.
We play with a wide variety of tones throughout the series. The story of OxyContin is so important and serious, but we knew we also needed to present it in an entertaining way. So how could these two seemingly contradictory ideas co-exist? Pete is a masterful director and captured the material in a way that gave us many options in the cutting room. He usually steered us toward aligning the tone with the emotional state of the characters. For example, the way we present the scenes with Richard Sackler has a certain whimsy to them. I think that says something about his character, I’m sure the audience will come to their own conclusions.
Lastly, this story is so personal to so many people (including myself) that it often became personally raw and emotional working the material. I talked a little bit about my own connection to OxyContin. Almost everyone I know who worked on Painkiller, or screened cuts with us, knows someone who was affected by this epidemic. That’s a tremendous burden, to tell a story so important to so many different people.
PH: What have you learned (professionally and personally) about yourself as a production professional over the years?
Geofrey Hildrew: When I was a younger editor, I remember having the urge to resist editorial notes, especially ones I didn’t agree with. I quickly realized; it was usually faster to do the note (even if I “thought” it was a bad one) to show that it didn’t work than to argue about it. As soon as I changed my mindset, I increasingly found that I was coming up with surprising and unexpected ways of approaching material that I might not have come to on my own. I think that’s when I truly matured into a professional editor.
The longer I’ve been doing this, I’ve become increasingly confident in my skills and abilities. I think the thing I’ve learned most about myself is to trust my instincts. When I began editing, I remember the tendency to overthink and analyze every single cut. Over intellectualizing art never creates a positive emotional response. I’ve learned to feel my way through the process much more these days. If I’m having an emotional response to the material, odds are the audience is feeling the same way.
PH: Can you share any upcoming projects?
Geofrey Hildrew: I’m currently working on a project for Ryan Murphy Productions about Aaron Hernandez. We’re still pretty early in the process. We shot about half of the season before the strikes began. Hopefully, when they resolve, we’ll be able to continue. It’s a pretty cool show!