Poker Face

Ateam of four skilled editors worked closely together to craft Poker Face, the new crime series that follows an amateur sleuth named Charlie Cale, played by Natasha Lyonne, who has an untapped talent for solving crime – she is effectively a human lie detector. This skill becomes her greatest asset, but also quickly gets her into trouble when she realizes that the people she meets are often lying to cover up a murder. Her nosy questions and her stubbornness to find the answer only further compound the dangerous situations she finds herself in. Edited by Bob Ducsay, ACE; Glenn Garland, ACE; Shaheed Qaasim and Paul Swain, the 10-episode Peacock series from showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman plays like 10 mini self contained movie mysteries.

For all the editors it was an immediate “yes” to work and collaborate with Poker Face’s creator Rian Johnson, the filmmaker behind Knives Out and Glass Onion. As Swain remarks, “When my agent called me initially, I nearly fell out of my chair. Meeting such established filmmakers can be nerve wracking. But when I finally did meet Rian Johnson and [exec producer] Ram Bergman, they made me feel welcome immediately. And working with Bob [Ducsay, Johnson’s frequent collaborator] was a big treat. Of course, we all have seen his editing work quite a bit on Knives Out, Glass Onion and Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the whole team was just a real fantastic bunch.”

For Ducsay, who cut Poker Face’s pilot and Episode 9, “It felt like film school since I was simultaneously finishing Glass Onion and doing Poker Face for a while. It was really fun doing that. I have worked with Rian Johnson a lot and I never take it for granted either. He’s unbelievably talented and tremendously kind. These are always the greatest opportunities when you can work with the people that you love. It makes a really big difference. And I love Natasha [Lyonne] and getting to work on a beautiful script was really exciting.”

In the series, vagabond sleuth Charlie Cale travels around the United States, meeting a cast of colorful characters that features guest stars (such as Lil Rel Howery, Adrien Brody, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Simon Helberg) while on the run from a casino owner played by Ron Perlman. As Garland describes the process, “It was interesting because I saw Bob’s first episode, which was Episode 9, and it was quite dark in terms of tone. My first episode that I cut was Episode 4 – the heavy metal episode. And I was like, wow, some of my stuff is very heightened. Is this gonna work? Because I thought Bob and Rian had done such a brilliant job with Episode 9. I was just blown away and the episode was just very intense. And I started working with Rian and we [the editing team] all realized it’s okay for it to have this rollercoaster.”

That rollercoaster often weaves dark comedy, suspense, thriller and physical comedy elements all into one with varying degrees per episode. Quaasim noted that this freedom made the series fun to edit. “We understood that each episode is special in its own right. So as long as you can honor the story of that episode, Natasha’s character will be the lynchpin throughout the course of the entire series and glue everything together. I think that’s the beauty and magic of the show.”

The editor adds that Johnson treated each episode as its own individual ‘movie.’ “It afforded us the opportunity for each of us to be able to apply our own sauce to each of these episodes,” he says. “I think that’s one of the reasons this series has so much magic.” Ducsay notes, “One thing that is kind of amazing that gets overlooked is that the series was completely shot out of order. And I think this was a gigantic challenge for performance, but Rian and Natasha worked together to modulate and craft performance well for this brand-new character that goes on this journey in Season 1. To me it was exceedingly impressive that they accomplished this feat.”

Another part of the structure is the efficient character development of the victims that happens before the murders. As Quaasim explains, “That’s part of what makes it work. We have to find the empathy in the character who gets killed or at least we need to see  that through Charlie Cale’s eyes.” Garland echoes, “In terms of the writing and editing, we were always trying to economically establish people we care about.

When they get murdered, we really want Charlie Cale to figure it out. I go back to the pilot episode as a wonderful example of this. There is this maid working at a casino that discovers something illegal that quickly gets killed off because of her discovery. Seeing her murder makes the audience realize how much she meant to Natasha’s character and you just want her to solve this mystery and the mysteries that follow.”

Poker Face’s structure that blends old and new forms of television is arguably one of the reasons the show became so popular. The show has one foot firmly in the past of crime procedurals and another foot in the present with each episode offering something a little bit different to the audience. As Ducsay concludes, “I heard from people initially that the structure of the show could get tiring pretty quickly. And I understand that because you get the show’s rhythm quickly, but then it throws you a little curve ball in an episode and something happens that is unexpected and breaks from convention. Then something else would start to happen. I would hear people watching the show say that the structure gives familiarity and some comfort to the audience. What happens is when Charlie [Cale] shows up on the crime scene, it’s a big deal. And in most episodes, she was already there when the crime happened. There is something about this structure that goes back to a much older time when television was a ritual and people would watch for comfort. I think that comfort level comes with that structure, and it was something I didn’t expect.”

The editors give a big shout out to the team including assistant editors Sam Bollinger, Aaron Campbell, Gregg London, and Colin Laurent-Bixler for a job well done. “As editors we only have what footage is given to us and we were fortunate that our directors of photography and directors gave us such great ingredients,” Swain adds. “I look at the episode, ‘The Future of Sport,’ with all the cars and think about all the footage director Iain MacDonald had to get for us. It makes our job as editors a little bit easier when you’ve got terrific craftsmen who know what they need to get for the story and for the character.”

Ducsay chimes in, “Composer Nathan Johnson and Judson Crane were also really important in making this work and developing a score that was completely unique and worked for the tone of the series including a beautiful motif for Natasha’s character with the banjo. They were part of this series in a gigantic way.”

Garland sums up, “Rian Johnson, our team and everyone on the show was trying to create this love letter to those formative crime procedurals like Columbo or Murder, She Wrote that it harkens back to, but then flip it on its head. There was a lot of love that was put into this series and I think that love really comes through from all the hard work of this fantastic crew of editors, craftsmen and actors. It was a wonderful experience.”

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