Shelly Westerman & Payton Koch on Crafting the Intricacies of "Only Murders in the Building"

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Co-editors Shelly Westerman and Payton Koch delved into the meticulous process of editing episode 3.08, "Sitzprobe," of "Only Murders in the Building." Collaborating with directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, they skillfully navigated a complex split-screen structure that weaves through four distinct storylines. Their efforts culminate in Steve Martin's uproarious rendition of the patter song "Which of the Pickwick Triplets Did It?". Leveraging her previous experience as Berman and Pulcini's assistant editor, Shelly's established rapport with the directors contributed to making "Sitzprobe" a standout episode filled with suspense, emotion, and humor.

PH: The split-screen structure in episode 3.08 of Only Murders in the Building was both visually stunning and narratively complex. Can you walk us through the process of mapping out and editing this intricate structure across four different storylines?

Payton Koch: When we first read the split-screen sequence in the script, we knew we had to act fast in order for production to properly execute all the visuals going on simultaneously. Luckily we had the fantastic directing duo, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who were instrumental in putting the pieces together. Working with Robert, we made a title card version of the sequence before we received any footage to block out the movements and timing, then gave it to production so they knew how the camera needed to move and frame the actors. It was such a collaborative effort on all sides, and if not for the excessive pre-production planning, I’m sure we would have had a much harder time navigating the sequence. 

Shelly Westerman: Our fabulous directors, Bob Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, suggested we mock up the sequence using title cards. Together we mapped out the action, where movements and scene changes would hit. There was great direction in the script as well. We all took turns, our assistants Jamie Clark and Diana Hiatt, contributed significantly. Diana color coordinated the title cards to help visually track story lines. This was all before shooting began! We presented production with a very clear plan, enabling the team to time out and frame shots accordingly. I think they were impressed! Once we received the footage, there were still minor framing adjustments to make, but the hardest, most technical part had already been done! Then we had fun, diving into Steve’s incredible performances which served as the focal point around all other action. 

PH: Shelly, having previously served as the assistant editor for directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, how did your close relationship with them influence the editing process of "Sitzprobe"? How did it contribute to the episode's seamless flow and impactful storytelling?

Shelly Westerman: After we laughed and caught up on our lives, I was able to talk frankly about how the season was going, what was working well, and where we could improve. Our familiarity was key to that magnificent episode. We talked during pre-production and throughout the shoot, both of which gave us much more insight and clear direction for our Editor’s Cut. Good communication is always key, isn’t it? We talked through great sound & music ideas, we proposed picture cuts to John…as a team we really were in sync, which made for a strong episode. 

PH: Payton, as co-editor, what were some of the unique challenges you faced in editing an episode with such a dynamic and fast-paced narrative, particularly in balancing the humor, suspense, and emotion throughout the episode?

Payton Koch: That’s the fun of Only Murders. It’s a show that has all the elements you want in a story and I believe that's what makes the show and characters so engaging. It’s always a challenge in finding the right balance, episode by episode, as each varies in tone, but the beauty of “Sitzprobe” was that we got it all in one. The truth is that it starts on the page, and our amazing writers are the first ones to find that balance of drama, comedy, and suspense. Then as footage comes in, and I start cutting, scoring, and putting the pieces together, it’s easier to see where you may want to lean into something more dramatic or comedic. Our amazing composer Sid Khosla has provided so many beautiful pieces of music that help tell our story, and I’ll find myself auditioning various cues with drastically different expressions or feelings to see how it lands against the picture. This process helps you see what’s working and what’s not in regard to tone and little by little, it starts the balance out and everything feels perfect. 

PH: "Sitzprobe" features Steve Martin's hilarious performance of the patter song "Which of the Pickwick Triplets Did It?". How did you approach editing this musical sequence to enhance both the comedic timing and the overall energy of the episode?

Payton Koch: Steve was so brilliant in this performance, and the hours of work that went into learning and performing this number was insane. This performance was featured in the split screen so most of the framing and structure was set up in pre-production, but as the footage of his performance came in, we had so much fun watching him and building his hero moment. They broke up the song into a few chunks so we could have specific coverage for the split screen, while also giving Steve the ability to focus on certain sections. He also performed the song live, so we used a mix of the pre-recorded track along with his live vocals to really sell the reality element of the performance. The nature of the song was so fast and rhythmic that it was fun to use the beats of the song to time out when we would cut to different angles. 

Shelly Westerman: It was always our intention to honor Steve’s astounding performance, whilst ensuring story beats were clear, suspenseful, and emotional. Yes, it was tricky in the context of a technical split-screen setup. Having a pre-planned, organized structure allowed us freedom to play around with performance. One thing we’d love to mention: Steve pre-recorded the song, as well as performed it live, and then re-recorded additional bits. For our cut, we primarily stuck to the live version, but our astounding musical team did a final music edit pass, combining all three recordings, editing syllable by syllable. When we heard the final mix, our jaws dropped. We thought OUR version was fine, but WOW, we were blown away by how powerful and absolutely perfect it felt. 

PH: Collaboration is key in the editing room. Can you discuss how you worked together with the directors and other members of the post-production team to ensure that the editing process aligned with the creative vision of the series?

Shelly Westerman: Early on, I reach out to crew members, expressing something positive – how beautiful a costume is, how fantastic the sound recordings are, how great a set is dressed – truthfully and earnestly. Instead of calling with a problem, which is what everyone expects when they see an editor's emails or calls, it’s nice feedback, which creates a stronger bond. I’ve also advocated for inclusion in all meetings. Since most are on Zoom, it’s easier to participate. If we’re busy and can’t make it, so be it. We have a fantastic post team that takes care of everything, but feeling included, seeing other faces, making those personal connections, makes for better work. TV schedules are notoriously tight and it breaks my heart to dump something into our sound supervisor or composer’s lap, giving them a few days, maybe a week to create. I push for inclusion early on. It’s silly not to take advantage of their creativity and expertise, and again, the work is infinitely better. 

Payton Koch: Going to bounce off Shelly's answer and agree with everything she said ha! We’re so lucky to have a great team and even being remote, we still build a little post family while we’re working and have that feeling of a safety net knowing our post team is there to support and help us in the making of these episodes. 

PH: "Only Murders in the Building" has a distinctive blend of suspense, humor, and heart. How did you as editors maintain consistency in tone while also allowing each episode to have its own unique style and rhythm?

Payton Koch: It’s always fun to play with tone over the course of the season. I’d say we are always trying to maintain the grounding that is our trio. I really rely on our score, by Sid Khosla, to help emphasize certain moments, whether it's adding a high tension string to alert the audience something is coming around the corner, or adding an emotional piano melody to hit the drama. I think the show has established itself as this diverse dramedy that’s learned to balance all its sub-genres in one, which again is what makes it so much fun to work on. 

Shelly Westerman: We do try and attend as many meetings as we’re able, if only to glean a bit about each episode’s tone. Table reads are extraordinary, and how fun is it to be on a Zoom with Steve Martin, Marty Short, and Selena Gomez! As editors, we talk often, we look at each other’s sequences, and we depend heavily on our assistants who are phenomenal at tracking the tiniest details from episode to episode! We’ll also run things by our composer, Siddhartha Khosla, who is a huge part in modulating tone with his stunning compositions. We’ll tweak music cues, adjusting tone, pace and instrumentation – he sings and plays us stuff over the phone, it’s so much fun! 

PH: The episode is described as one of the most suspenseful, moving, and silly in the show's history. How did you navigate the shifts in tone and pacing to ensure that each aspect of the episode resonated with the audience? 

Shelly Westerman: That’s the joy, isn’t it? It’s not just one thing or the other. That’s one of the show’s most appealing aspects. We’re cutting scene by scene. When we start joining scenes and building acts, we start to see where things are or aren’t working. If I’m really not sure, I’ll throw any bit of score in to see how that feels and pretty quickly I’ll have a feeling – “oh no, that’s horrible” or “oh yes, there’s something there, I’m on the right track.” Generally, the comedy bits are often tighter, faster, leaving room for the slower, more emotional moments. It’s also great to consult early on with our composer, Siddhartha Khosla. Where I may think to end something on a big, energetic piece of music, he may suggest a slower, contemplative piece that becomes quite magical. I love the experimentation. 

Payton Koch: Well that’s a good review haha! It’s true that we really are just experimenting as we go. The real balancing act happens when we finally have an entire episode assembled and you’re able to sit back, watch it down and understand what areas need more work, maybe need different music, maybe need to hold longer to hit a moment… We were also lucky with “Sitzprobe” on the script level as the episode really has all the elements you want in a series. 

PH: Are there any specific editing techniques or strategies that you employed in "Sitzprobe" that you feel contributed significantly to its success?

Shelly Westerman: I don’t know if this is a strategy – but it’s really basic for me – what makes me laugh, and what feels most real, most emotional, is what I strive for. 

Payton Koch: Not sure about any technical or specific strategies in the editing process, but I will say it’s all more feeling-based. When I’m watching dailies and something makes me smile, laugh, or I get chills, any sort of feeling, I’ll grab that piece and start building my sequence from there. Editing is storytelling so I’m always stepping back and saying to myself, what’s the best way to tell this specific story, and then we’re off! 

PH: With a show like Only Murders in the Building that relies heavily on mysteries and plot twists, how do you approach editing to keep the audience engaged and guessing without giving away too much too soon?

Payton Koch: In a sense we are guessing too! The back half of the scripts come in while we are shooting the front half so we play along in figuring out the pieces as well ha! We are in constant conversation regarding which plot points are essential to hit each episode, where something may land later on, maybe going back and adding an extra beat on a clue for a pay off down the road. John will occasionally go back into the cuts and make tiny tweaks and sprinkle easter eggs here and there when we can, which is always very fun. 

Shelly Westerman: We’re constantly comparing clues and story points with each other. Our assistants are the most fabulous trackers – they remember everything. There is a good deal of preparation, with script meetings, table reads, concept and tone meetings, we’ve got a general sense of what to expect. This helps us understand how to either hide something or show something, and of course our showrunner, John Hoffman, is the ultimate master. He’s paying attention to every single detail, so if we miss something, or something isn’t quite right, he’ll let us know. It is tricky though – the show is so layered. I remember having a few scenes I’d done a lot of work on, but it wasn’t until John pointed something out in frame, that was a clue, that I’d never registered as anything important!

PH: Looking back on your experience editing "Sitzprobe," what are you most proud of accomplishing in this episode, and what do you hope viewers take away from your work on it?

Payton Koch: I’m most proud of the team we had together in crafting this episode. Having the help and support from our great assistant editors, amazing collaboration with our directors, and the experience of editing another episode together. I hope when viewers watch this episode they think, wow what an ensemble of people it took to make something so beautiful. Collaboration is beautiful. 

Shelly Westerman: I agree with Payton! The teamwork made this episode special. I’m thrilled with our technical accomplishments (that tricky split screen!), but I’m happiest when something is emotionally moving. Thanks Marty Short & Meryl Streep! 

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