Editing a mystery can be a delicate business. A reaction shot held a few frames too long can be a giveaway, too short and the eventual payoff could feel too obvious. This is challenging enough in a TV episode or a movie, but even more so in a ten-episode arc.
But that’s the kind of work the editors of “Only Murders in the Building” are responsible for. The well-respected series starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez is about to finish its third season, and editors Shelly Westerman, ACE, Peggy Tachdijian, ACE, and Payton Koch not only have to keep the reveals coming amid the show’s often absurdist humor and moments of pathos and drama, but they also have to attack some major musical numbers for the show-within-the-show “Death Rattle Dazzle,” at the heart of the season’s story arc.
Season Three kicks off with the frustrated director Oliver Putnam (Short) finally landing a long-awaited return to Broadway to direct the mystery, starring the major movie star Ben Glenroy (Paul Rudd), Charles Haden-Savage (Martin) and an ensemble of characters played by Meryl Streep and Ashley Park, among others. Glenroy drops dead on opening night and after a brief and miraculous recovery, winds up tumbling through an elevator shaft at the Arconia, the luxury apartment building the lead characters all live in, crashing to his final doom on the roof of the elevator as Oliver, Charles and Mabel (Selena Gomez) are exiting.
The work of editing for the series involves close collaboration among executive producers John Hoffman (the showrunner), Dan Fogelman and Jess Rosenthal; the writers, the directors and actors and the trio of editors, each of whom takes responsibility for particular episodes.
Westerman, who a few years ago was adamantly opposed to the idea of remote editing (“I always said you must be in the room for creative collaboration,” she’d frequently asserted), has completely revised her feelings on the subject and acknowledges that she wouldn’t have even been able to have taken this plum job if it weren’t for the ability to work while also spending a significant amount of time in Florida caring for her parents. In fact, all three editors and each of their assistants work remotely, too.
The editing process starts before cameras roll, when they receive that week’s script and subsequently attend (virtually) the table read in New York — an essential part of the process, Westerman stresses. “Once you hear the word spoken, you hear the rhythms, you start to get an idea in your head, and you can begin visualizing an episode.”
This is followed by a concept meeting, in which all the department heads confer. “We talk at a high level about the look and tone of the episode, and then we have a tone meeting specifically with the episode director and executive producers, and we go through the script scene-by-scene and talk about what’s happening. The director will propose all their questions and editors will chime in with questions, so there are a lot of very helpful discussions that happen early on.”
Each director helms two episodes, which are cross-boarded and shot in New York, usually with six or seven days allotted for each.
“Once they’re shooting one of your episodes,” Westerman explains, “we’ll start to get the dailies. What we see might match everything we’ve talked about to that point, or they might have discovered things on set that made the scenes go a very different way. But at least all the preparation lets us start with a grounding from which to work.”
Editors are given roughly two days to get their editor’s cut together and sent off to the director. “Then on a half-hour show like ‘Only Murders,'” she says, “the directors get about two days to work with the editor, before we need to turn that [cut] over to John and the other executive producers for their feedback.”
DRILLING DOWN TO THE WORKFLOW
While the editors and assistants all work remotely, they are not actually doing the work on their computer or working with any of the media where they are. Boxes with Avid and media all sit securely inside the facility Pacific Post, where they are networked together via Avid-NEXIS.
Westerman, who works on a Mac “trashcan” wherever she’s set herself up to work, uses Jump Desktop to access her hardware and the network, as do the other two editors, though they happen to work on Mac Minis.
When dailies are ready, Westerman’s assistant, Jamie Clarke, is the first one notified. He will also have access to camera and sound reports and script notes, and he will QC the material to ensure that it’s all in sync and there are no technical issues. Then he organizes the scenes within Westerman’s system. Anything shot with more than one camera (most scenes in the show are covered by two and some of the musical numbers by three) into Group Clip projects, and he will load footage into bins to her specifications (each editor has their preferred method of organizing material).
“I don’t get the scenes in order,” Westerman says, “but I’ll start to build sequences pretty quickly, so that I can see how it’s flowing. By the time they finish shooting the episode, I’ve got a rough sketch of the acts put together. Then, for my two-day editor’s cut, I’m really trying to polish and tighten.”
MAINTAINING A SEASON-LONG MYSTERY
Westerman received a detailed briefing from Hoffman prior to commencement of production for the season. This provided her with a broad overview of all the episodes, “so we had some idea of what was going to happen as we got into the season. We knew they would still be tweaking the script here or there, but we had an idea very early on what was going to happen and how the mystery would be solved.”
But that isn’t the only way to proceed with the work, Westerman acknowledges. “Peggy said she didn’t want to know who the killer was,” she recalls. “She wanted to be surprised by each script. I felt like I really wanted to know. We would laugh about ‘How can you not want to know?’ But she felt it helped her with the surprises because she was surprised, as well.”
Regardless, in a story propelled by a constant revelation and clues, there needs to be an ongoing overview provided as episodes come together. Hoffman and the other executive producers, Westerman says, “will sometimes look at a version we present and say, ‘Hey, we need to see this in Episode Three because we’re going to refer to it in Episode Six. So then, we go back and finetune the episode.
“The moment that Ben Glenroy falls down the elevator shaft and the [three lead characters] run out of the elevator, turn back around to see what happened and Mabel says, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ — that scene comes back into play in a later episode where she’s looking at a hanky Ben is holding. I didn’t use that and one of the executive producers said, ‘The hanky’s important. We have to see her looking at it at that point.'”
There is also a moment where Charles gets into a fight on the fateful opening night that kicks the season off.
“They shot the fight scene for use in Episode Nine, but then it turned out I needed to use some of it in Five and Payton needed some of it for Six. But Peggy hadn’t cut Nine yet, so we all wound up pulling from her footage, using bits and pieces from the fight scene that worked for our episodes. Later, we went back to make sure we were all in sync with one another in terms of what we were using from the scene.”
This back-and-forth happens frequently, particularly for the recaps that show important moments from previous episodes. “One of us might do a recap and another one will say, ‘You’ve got to change that. That isn’t in the show anymore.”
POLISHING PICTURE AND SOUND
Long gone are the days when editors turned in rough cuts with ‘insert effect here.’ The final sound editing and VFX creation will continue after picture is locked, but directors and producers expect the editors to deliver scenes that are complete, and work as is. So much of that work commences while Westerman and the other editors are still sketching out scenes.
“The schedule is so accelerated compared to a feature,” the editor notes, “so as I’m going along and stringing together and polishing scenes, we’re also doing sound work, adding score, adding VFX. We’re doing all of that together so that by the time I get to the end of my editor’s cut, I’m hopefully in pretty good shape with a polished cut to present to the director.”
Editing assistants are generally skilled at basic VFX work, such as wire removal, and the show has a VFX artist on staff from the beginning of production who can step in and handle quite a lot of the work as it comes up.
“There’s a scene where one of the characters is in a basement threatening Charles and Mabel with a blowtorch,” Westerman recalls. “Of course, they couldn’t shoot with a real flame for safety reasons, so the VFX artist handled that.”
Sound Supervisor Matt Waters gets involved early on to build a wide variety of sound effects. As the season progresses, there are more and more sounds that can be re-worked and re-used. Fairly early in the season, the editors already had access to quite a few sounds of the theater where much of Season Three takes place. SFX such as specific doors opening and closing, and hallway background sounds were accessible to the editors and sound editors.
CUTTING MUSICAL NUMBERS
While the musical numbers are meant to be dramatic and advance the plot, they need to be approached differently from regular dialogue scenes. Especially, as “Death Rattle Dazzle” really gets on its feet and the routines get more elaborate.
Cutting musical sections is a different set of muscles, Westerman explains. “These are big numbers and big Broadway people like Sara Bareilles, Michael R. Jackson, Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman were stepping in to help with the songs with so I’m not going to lie, it was intimidating at times.”
These scenes are generally shot with three cameras, and Westerman not only Group Clips all the angles from a take so she could watch them together, but she also has her assistant build what she calls a “super group” comprised of all the tapes of a certain setup, as well as all the coverage so she could observe every possible permutation of picture to each moment of the song.
When there is singing by say Steve Martin or Meryl Streep or one of the other performers, the songs were generally pre-recorded by the artist, who would then, during the shoot, sing live while being fed the playback through an earpiece so both the playback and live audio are available on their own clean tracks.
This approach leaves open the possibility of using the prerecorded audio or the live audio, depending on which plays best. In fact, many of the numbers are the result of the music and sound departments cutting extensively, sometimes syllable by syllable, to come up with the very best rendition.
“The performers go in and did recordings of all the songs a while before they were used,” the editor explains. “We get those early on so we can listen to them and get them in our heads and know the songs themselves. Then, once we get the scenes, we start assembling those right away because they took a little bit longer to craft. They’re technically more challenging. I’ll get it laid out first, and then I can go back and find these little moments that help tell the story.”
Once the musical scenes are cut, the music production team and music editor Michah Liberman goes in and re-works the sound, sometimes alternating between the prerecorded and the live versions.
“Sometimes, they’re literally cutting syllable by syllable in a very exacting, precise way. Finally, our sound mixer, Lindsey Alvarez, ties it all together.”
“There is a lot of teamwork on the show,” Westerman sums up, “and it’s been rewarding and fun to work on a show this good and be part of that collaboration.”
NAB Show New York Appearance
Westerman will chat with writer and film historian Bobbie O’Steen on stage at NAB Show New York’s Insight Theater. The duo will discuss the “meticulous art of film editing” on October 25 at 3 p.m.
Westerman has earned ACE and BFE nods for her work on the second season of the Selena Gomez-helmed series. Season 3 of “Only Murders in the Building” is streaming now on Hulu.
Westerman got her big break in film working under Nora Ephron and Richie Marks. Recent notable work includes a full slate of Ryan Murphy projects, including Emmy winning limited series “Halston,” for which she served as producer and editor.