Alex Hall tells why it was like editing a ‘giant, eight-hour feature’

By George Jaarrett

Alex Hall – who won an ACE Eddie Award for cutting the pilot episode of Tremé alongside Kate Sanford, ACE –was working on his second feature with director Oren Moverman when he shared his memories from the 10 months he was connected to HBO’s True Detective. The debut season of the crime drama featured a cast led by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as two Louisiana State Police homicide detectives on the hunt for a serial killer.

After five years of working on Tremé, New Orleans had become a second home to Hall, so relocating from New York to a historic mansion on the fringe of the French Quarter for a five-month shoot directed by Cary Fukunaga was an easy adjustment.

Post-production supervisor Jessica Levin, who had worked on the first three seasons of Tremé, reached out to Hall one week into the shoot in South Louisiana. What were his reactions when he first saw the 550-page Nic Pizzolatto script, and heard that Fukunaga wanted one last chance to use the romance of film?

“Jess has discerning taste so when she said how excited she was about the show, I knew I should consider it,” said Hall. “When I learned that Cary was directing, I was even more intrigued. Collaborating with interesting filmmakers is my favorite part of being an editor. I was also incredibly excited to have a chance to work with di-rector of photography Adam Arkapaw. I didn’t learn until later that they were going to shoot film but that was an added bonus. When I read the scripts I was blown away. Nic had written something special.”

Hall would end up working initially with editor Affonso Gonçalves and later on with Meg Reticker too, so what happened in terms of editorial structure and collaboration up front?

“Every dramatic narrative TV show is only made possible by a strong group of assistant editors. We were blessed to have a talented group, both in New Orleans and back in New York where we finished the show,” said Hall. “Vegard Sorby, Phillip Kimsey, Alec Styborski and Ron Dulin managed our dailies, executed and coordinated VFX, assembled scenes, sound designed, managed media, temp scored, coordinated with other departments. It was an incredibly complex, labor-intensive show and they carried the load and let Affonso (Fonz) and me focus on the creative aspects.”

He added: “Reading the scripts, seeing how ambitious the structure was, I knew it was going to be a big challenge editorially.”

From the outset, Hall and Gonçalves worked very closely, watching each other’s assemblies, critiquing the work, discussing approaches to scene structure, tone, music, pace, performance – everything that editors obsess over.

“There wasn’t a single day in the 10 months that we worked on the show where we didn’t sit down together and discuss things,” Hall said, relating that the series had a unique structure with just one director for all eight episodes, and a single writer/showrunner. “And then there is its storytelling structure, a complex, time-shifting narrative with multiple POV elements, that takes place over al-most 20 years.”

In order to practically shoot such a project the crew had to film for several episodes at once; on any given day Arkapaw would be shooting scenes for two or more different episodes.

“Unlike a traditional TV process where a single editor gets the material for a single episode in the span of a few weeks and works on that episode until it is complete, Fonz and I were working on the entire season all at once – much more like a giant, eight-hour feature film,” said Hall. “And there was no pilot episode where the ‘language’ of the show gets figured out, where the strengths and weaknesses of the material and the storytelling approach can be assessed, and some sort of consensus can be reached among the filmmakers.”

He added: “We parceled out the individual episodes for which we each would be responsible, but to achieve the kind of seamless, stylistic approach we desired we were constantly ‘up in each others business.’

“What values above and beyond dramatic TV were the editors charged with carrying over into the cutting process?

“All of us – Nic, Cary, Fonz, myself, the producers, HBO – viewed it as being a ‘best of both worlds’ situation. Obviously, that presents its own set of challenges and obstacles,” said Hall. “We wanted the cinematic scale, narrative drive, production value and technical elegance of a big feature film. But we also wanted to get maximum effect from our episodic TV structure – using cliffhangers, big revelations, tasty hooks, and that unforced intimacy of serialized TV. Plus we want-ed to use the programming time we had to achieve a broader, deeper kind of character exploration than you can in a feature. The tension between those styles of storytelling is part of what makes the show interesting.

“For the first season of True Detective, a show rooted deeply in the grit, grime and grandeur of rural Louisiana and in the cinematic history of film noir and procedural detective stories, it also made sense to shoot with 35mm,” he added.

Setting up shop at the mansion in-volved quite a bit of work, especially for the link to Deluxe in New York. “We had four full Avid Media Composer suites – one each for Fonz, our two assistants and myself. There was an additional Avid suite for tech support and management, and a Unity system for storage,” said Hall.

The key camera details were 3 perf, aspect ratio 1:78, and the film stocks Kodak 5203 (50 Daylight) and 5219 (500 Tungsten). “Film and sound rolls were shipped daily from set to Deluxe, where the film was processed and scanned to DPX. Those files were then color timed and used to create an HDCAM SR master tape, which, in turn, was digitized at DNX 36 and synced to the audio. The media was sent back via the Aspera system,” said Hall.

“Dailies for the producers were made available on a DVD and on Pix. After locking an episode, bins and EDLs were delivered to Deluxe for final conform back to the DPX files. VFX and final color were added and then output to an HDCAM SR Master, with the final sound mix,” he added. “We were lucky to work with the amazing colorist Steve Bodner. He took the time to grade all our dailies, so we rarely needed to color correct or de-grain the footage. Once the shows were locked, of course, Steve, Adam and Cary did a meticulous final color pass.”

One of the advantages to the Man-sion was that it was where the director resided, so Fukunaga had easy off-set access to editorial, to review assemblies, discuss scenes and view any particular dailies.

“Out of deference to Cary, Nic kept his distance during the shoot, preferring to let us assemble the episodes in a traditional ‘director’s cut’ fashion. Once principal photography ended and we had rough cuts of every episode, Nic became very involved and the full collaboration began,” said Hall.

“Another unique aspect of the process was that Cary was both the director and an executive producer so he stayed deeply involved in all aspects of the editorial and finishing process all the way through to completion, as opposed to standard TV protocol where directors get four days per episode and then must hand his/her cut off to the showrunner and producers,” he added.

Pizzolatto rewrote the first two episodes to suit the voices of Harrelson and McConaughey, and over the timelines he adjusted for changes in gait andspeech patterns.

Did the timelines cause any editorial problems? “No. It was clear from the outset that the shifting timelines and POVs were one of the most exciting and interesting aspects of the story and that proved to be the case in the edit as well,” said Hall. “It did make it tricky at times when we wanted to move scenes around. True Detective was a show about storytelling and narrative itself as much as anything else, so playing with the timelines, points of view and flow of information was elemental to the story. Most of the shifts in time were ‘baked in’ to the screenplays but there were many occasions where we created new segues or omitted scripted ones as we explored and ‘rewrote’ in the cutting room.

“It was always one of the priorities of the filmmakers, from the script stage onward, that the strange and unique landscape of Louisiana be a full or at least a supporting character in the piece. It was also important to help achieve the sense of scale that we wanted, to make the show as cinematic as possible,” he added. “Nic grew up down there in what they call ‘Cancer Alley’ and he and Cary were inspired by some of the amazing photography that has captured the place over the years. We discussed it constantly as we assembled the episodes and did numerous second-unit shoots to secure the material we needed to play with in the edit. That footage operated as visual punctuation and as simple transitional elements, but we hoped that over the entire run it would become a much more significant part of the show.”

The work Hall and Gonçalves did while the shoot was going on was mostly exploratory. “On set we were assembling scenes so everyone knew we were getting what we needed; tinkering with the performances to see what Matthew and Woody and Michelle Monaghan were giving us. We were working with Cary and playing with tone and form and pace to see what would best suit the material; we were trying different types of music and score; and, we were experimenting with sound design. We were creating the palette and the language of the show,” said Hall.

Once he and Gonçalves returned to New York and had locked a few episodes, the airdates started to creep up on them and they knew they needed to bring in another editor. Meg Reticker came on board during this time.

“We had our episodes roughly assembled but like all assemblies they were quite uneven, loose and problematic in terms of running time,” said Hall. “It was the perfect time for Nic to get more involved and for the process to become more focused. We knew we had really amazing performances from our leads, and from so many supporting actors. We knew we had beautiful and dynamic footage. We knew we had a great script. And we thought we knew how it was all going to come together and work.

“We started digging for the essential stuff, focusing the story, fine tuning the scenes and modulating the performances. Nic stresses character and theme above all else and we tried to use each episode’s theme to inform the choices we made.”

During this time, the editors also worked with series music super-visor, T Bone Burnett to replace temp music with original score.

“That’s when everything really came together, all the elements – the music, the visual effects, the cutting, the color grading, the performances,” Hall said. “We could finally see all eight episodes as a single piece. That helped us make the final editing tweaks and send the show out into the world.