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Production

Editing for Comedy TV with Gary Dollner

Emmy-winning editor Gary Dollner talks process, creative inspiration, and the working relationship between editor and director on an eclectic mix of comedy TV hits.

December 1, 2020

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Our Emmy-winning guest Gary Dollner takes us through his editing workflow, his creative philosophy, and the age-old questions of American vs British comedy styles. 

The following interview is an excerpt from our video series, Production - In Conversation. To watch the full interview and see more video content, click here. Or you can listen to the Shift In Conversation podcast here.

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Gary Dollner - Editor - Fleabag, Killing Eve, Veep
Grace Amodeo - Program Manager - Shift 

Grace:
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career. 

Gary: I've been editing probably for about 25 years now, mostly in comedy. I sort of fell into comedy, but it’s a nice world to be in, the people are generally great and it’s nice to make people laugh. Career-wise there’s been no pattern, I’ve zigzagged all over the place. Recently things have been going quite well, probably coincided with meeting a certain Miss Phoebe Waller-Bridge. We’ve done some projects together that have just taken off. 

Grace:
Tell me about your editing workflow, and how you go from raw footage to a finished cut. 

Gary:
I've been lucky enough to work with some really brilliant assistant editors and they do all the hard work for me in many respects. When I come into the cutting room all the rushes are there, synched up and ready to go. So then it’s just a case of watching everything and starting to put the scene together. For years I used to watch everything without cutting anything, and I’d have big notebooks to make loads and loads of notes. I changed my work process a couple of years ago, jettisoned the notepad and started putting together selects reels while I was watching rushes and then construct the scene from that. 

Grace:
Do you work scene-by-scene, or construct the edit chronologically?

Gary:
No, often directors shoot out of sequence anyway so you start on day one wherever they’ve shot on the first day and just go through it. What happens is you try and get a scene to the best it could possibly be, and then you put the scenes together. Of course the whole piece then has another dynamic, where you’d have rhythmic peaks and troughs within the scene they may have to be tinkered with because then they crash into the next scene. 

Grace:
How many versions of an edit do you normally go through before it's finalized?

Gary:
There isn't a number. I’ve been really fortunate to work with some brilliant people over the years. I’ve got a 20-odd year working relationship with Armando Iannucci, and he’s got a pretty unique way of working. Often going back through projects in the past, there’d be so much material that was scripted but then there would be additional material that was improvised or semi-improvised on the day. So you can’t just refer to the script because there is all this other brilliant material. In order to get a handle on how to treat the material, I had to start making notes which is where that little system came from. I’d have to write them down or else I’d forget what they were. I developed a way of working that was very attentive, I had to watch everything because you never know where there might be one little nugget, one version that the performer would never replicate again. It’s so crucially important to watch all the material and know the material, because no one knows it better than you do. Further down the line a director will be reliant on you to remember every little bit. I never cease to be amazed at the impact of just changing certain lines, it just might be the finishing touch on a scene. 

Grace:
Do you see a fundamental difference between editing for comedy and editing for drama?

Ultimately what we’re trying to do is manipulate the emotional reactions of the audience. So if you can make people laugh, the principles are quite similar in terms of making them cry.

Gary:
I don't. And I happen to think I’m right about that, but unfortunately there’s a lot of people in the industry who disagree. People often get pigeonholed into certain boxes where they get stuck. My first big drama show was Killing Eve, and one of the things I was keen to preserve in the script were the comic beats within the story. For my money, I think it’s more difficult to cut comedy. With comedy you’ve got all of the story beats and the character traits and the narrative arcs that you’ve got to nail just like in any drama. But on top of that you have to get some laughs as well. Ultimately what we’re trying to do is manipulate the emotional reactions of the audience. So if you can make people laugh, the principles are quite similar in terms of making them cry. A lot of the comedies I’ve done in more recent times have tried to blur that line, which is an area I’ve always found really interesting because I don’t think it’s necessarily one or the other. 

Grace:
When you have a script and actors and directors who are already adding so much comedy to a piece, how do you find additional layers of comedy in the edit? 

Gary:
I think a lot of it is instinct, but there are certain principles that work in a comic setup in the same way it would work for a dramatic reveal. Essentially, the most important thing is what is going on in people’s faces, because they’ll tell you how funny they are when you watch them. I watch rushes back and if something makes me laugh it’s going in, it’s as simple as that. You start cherry picking from all the different takes, and all of a sudden you’ve got a bit that’s really funny from that take and a killer ending from that take and you join them all. But sometimes it’s not as straightforward as nicking all the best bits, because rhythmically it might be slightly out of kilter. You’re constantly massaging the rhythm of a delivery. The brilliant thing that really good performers bring to the party is that they might be sitting there not saying a word and they are absolutely adding value all of the time. It’s all going on in their face. I was blessed on Fleabag because they are all so good and they gave me an abundance of opportunities. And then that becomes a different problem in itself because now there is too much, so you have to start losing bits that you really like. If you can find the time to experiment, that’s when you can add comic value that wasn’t inherent in the script. 

The brilliant thing that really good performers bring to the party is that they might be sitting there not saying a word and they are absolutely adding value all of the time.

Grace:
Do you edit differently depending on whether the show is American or British, or intended for either American or British audiences? 

Gary:
I don't think so. My attitude has always been, you have to react to the material. I rarely go into anything trying to impose a certain style because you’re going to set yourself up to fall. You have to react to the material, not the other way around. That’s always the nice thing about working on a new show, you can experiment and you’re finding its feel stylistically. I just finished doing a feature for Disney, a film called Godmothered, and I was working with a British director, Sharon Maguire. We never even mentioned the American audience, other than certain phrases in the script where there was some transatlantic miscommunication where Brits don’t understand certain Americanisms and vice versa. I don’t think stylistically there’s a major difference. 

Grace:
What is it like to collaborate with a director on any given edit? 

I rarely go into anything trying to impose a certain style because you’re going to set yourself up to fall. You have to react to the material, not the other way around.

Gary:
I think without exception, all directors I’ve worked with cannot wait to get into the edit. They just want to get their hands on the material. The ones who I have the best working relationships with are the people who don’t come in with really rigid ideas of how a scene has to be put together. There aren’t any major shocks because we send the director our cut scenes every Friday, so they have a sense of how everything is going to come together. The really fascinating process is once you’ve got a show or film actually assembled, it’s the microsurgery of zooming in on close details, nuanced performances, or certain looks. Tinkering with rhythms on a very sub-level becomes quite time-consuming, and you get absorbed into it. 

Grace:
What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your career as an editor?

Gary:
There are no shortcuts. The most important thing is to watch all of the material. I would also say you have to hone certain diplomatic skills, because half the trick is being able to work a room. If you’ve got to sit quite close to someone for three, four, six, eight months you’ve got to be able to get on with them. It’s about how you deal with people as much as anything else. And the willingness to throw things up in the air and change things. Before I might have done my cut and thought that’s it, that’s the best I can do. If anyone came in and gave notes I would get quite frosty about it. But notes are either good or they’re bad, and you often have to go through the process to find out. 

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Would you like to participate in a future In Conversation video interview? Email grace@shift.io for more information. 

Grace Amodeo is a Content Marketing Manager at Shift, where she oversees the annual Shift Creative Fund grant program. She is a graduate of Emerson College, where she studied film with a concentration in directing narrative fiction. Grace lives in Los Angeles.
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