On her way up to the stage of the Shrine Auditorium Sept. 12 to receive her Emmy award for editing the pilot of "Arrested Development," Lee Haxall admitted she was very nervous. Looking back at the moment, she laughed that after passing the cast from "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" in the aisle, all she could think was, "I was just fine until I saw those guys. Now all I can think about is my dress is ripped, my hose have runs and my heels are seven years old."
We'll examine the creative input Lee Haxall had on the success of "Arrested Development" (which won five Emmys, including "Outstanding Comedy Series"), but to appreciate her progress, it's helpful to understand Haxall's career in context.
She went to USC's Film School in the early '80s "as a kid from a corn farm," and most of her early breaks came through her network of fellow student filmmakers.
After a series of low-budget indies as first a location sound mixer then sound editor, she was desperate to become a picture cutter. When famed editor Carol Littleton took the lead in 1989 in opening the roster of the Editors Guild to newcomers, Lee was finally able to get her union card in IATSE local 700 the following year, which let her work in assistant spots on several major Paramount features until she was able to learn TV post production as associate producer on the 1991 series "Eerie, Indiana."
"Eerie's creator/producer Karl Schaefer told Lee she could cut his next show, 'Strange Luck' if she could master Avid editing. "That was my big network picture break," she said, "and I've been working steady as an editor ever since."
That editing list includes comedies "Beggars and Choosers" and "Arliss," but ironically, it was her cutting on the gritty dramatic cop series, "The Shield" that brought her to the attention of directors Anthony and Joe Russo, because they wanted their new last-minute pickup for Fox, "Arrested Development," to wrap its offbeat comedy in a fast-cutting documentary-style flow of imagery.
Narrated by the uncredited Ron Howard, "Arrested Development" is about a family-owned land development conglomerate whose scion, George Bluth Sr. (played by Jeffery Tambor), has been jailed for shifty accounting practices. Without a father on the scene, the son, Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), is left to deal not only with the double entendre meaning of the title, but also a dysfunctional family.
The visual style of the show, especially the pilot, which aired Nov. 11, 2003, keeps the audience off-balance with the handheld videography of DP James Hawkinson and the unpredictable quirks of its characters. But although Haxall credits a lot of the comedy punch to the script from Mitchell Hurwitz, the pilot with its 35 hours of dailies was the kind of show that stretched the very capable capabilities of her assistant editors, Hunter Via and Jordan Goldman, while letting Lee call upon all the background influences in her editor's toolbox by ignoring matched action and freely indulging in jump cuts to let pacing and timing trump the rules of conventional linear narrative.
For example, in Act One during a family ensemble scene, there is a quick flashback to sister Lindsay's (Portia DeRossi) anti-circumcision protest group. Lindsay crows, "We brought in over $40,000," followed by one of Lee's favorite lines from Michael, "Sounds like you saved enough skin to make 10 new boys."
But there was no reaction shot to pay off the gag until Lee found a close-up of the mother, Lucille (Jessica Walter), in a different scene. She pirated it, and then inserted the cut away using reverse motion to make it appear as if the mother were looking toward Michael. "The expression in her eyes was perfect when played backwards, so I stole it," Lee said. "That's just one of the gems picked up off the edit-bay floor."
Then, Lindsay's husband, Dr. Tobias FŸnke (David Cross), inadvertently admits that most of the money donated to the fund-raiser actually came from the Bluth Co.'s corporate funds. Michael turns to confront the group and Lee cut in five exquisitely well-timed reactions: A) Michael turns toward camera, B) the mother sips her scotch, C) the sister looks away, D) the doctor looks sheepish, E) the mother hangs her head.
The way those visuals slam a pause in the comedic flow effectively catches the audience off-guard.
But again it took a bit of post-production magic to make the moment work since none of those reactions were originally planned just as they appeared in that sequence. For one thing, the pilot was shot on Panasonic's 720p tape in 16:9, but Lee's editing dub was 4:3. When she looked at the master tape Lee discovered that Lindsay's head could be seen very out of place in the lower corner of Michael's close-up, so she had to arrange for a major reposition to cheat that shot in.
The pilot also utilized a dual image effect as a transition several times, something the Avid software calls "picture-in-picture," where we see the last shot from the previous scene pull back into a half-screen square, and the first shot from the next scene appears in another square beside it.
"This was one more conglomeration idea we discovered in the edit bay," Haxall said. "Not only did it remind us of 'The Thomas Crown Affair,' but Mitch Hurwitz was delighted that it let us advance the story by juxtaposing the 'from' and 'to' shots simultaneously side-by side."
Later, Lee throws the audience another curve by invoking the same dual image effect, but this time using it to show simultaneous action.
As she explained, "That way we could pull up the amount of time that was passing while still letting the audience know what was going on. By that time in the show, we figured the viewers would be willing to buy it."
As Lee repeatedly demonstrated, the rhythm of the editing bridges the audience's disbelief long enough to make a time-truncating technique such as this find credibility in the audience's mind. Nowhere was that jump-cut more effective than in a quick scene showing family members fleeing from a hotel they could not afford. We see them running down a corridor and out the back door, but Lee cut their escape into five slices of time without worrying about the logical action flow, confident that this far into the episode the audience would be willing to accept the discontinuity.
"It frees me to be able to get away with some pretty weird cutting," she said. "It's like saying 'Here we go. You're on Mr. Toad's wild ride' throughout the show."
Lee finished the first season of "Arrested Development" sharing each alternative episode with fellow editor Steven Sprung. This year, she is working on the Universal/ DreamWorks feature film, "Meet the Fockers," starring Robert DeNiro. It's a good bet that the next time she receives a golden statuette, Lee Haxall will not be wearing seven-year-old shoes.