Bill Johnson’s Presidential Editing

When Bill Johnson, A.C.E., stepped up to the stage of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Sept. 8 to receive the Creative Arts Emmy award for "Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Series" – in recognition of his editing the season-ending "Two Cathedrals" episode of NBC’s "The West Wing" – he was able to relax and enjoy the moment.

Not only had the show earned a total of 18 Emmy nominations in its second season – matching the record set for its first year – but he also finally had the opportunity to voice the acceptance speech he had been unable to use for his first Emmy nomination the previous year. In that speech, Johnson expressed his gratitude to the cast and crew of the show, and especially to its creator, executive producer and writer, Aaron Sorkin; the episode’s director and co-executive producer, Thomas Schlamme; and John Wells Productions. Bill dedicated the statuette to his late father.

Winning the Emmy may prove to be the culmination of an enviable editing career for Johnson since, having already directed one episode of the series (the second season’s 18th installment, "Bad Moon Rising"), he plans to take the next year off to concentrate on getting out from behind his Avid and onto the production set to see if directing episodic TV can be as satisfying a challenge as postproduction.

This doesn’t come as a total surprise. Even though Bill had already set his sights on the film/TV industry as a student at Dartmouth College in the early 1980’s, he avoided the conventional "Film Studies" classes to concentrate on English Lit’s storytelling and plot structure curriculum.

Upon graduating, he sought the usual production assistant jobs in New York’s overstuffed low-budget feature market and was fortunate to become an assistant editor on an indie production that was unexpectedly unionized by IATSE; this endowed Bill with his union card. After he landed positions on several low-budget features, including 1985’s "After Hours" directed by Martin Scorsese, Bill met the film editor who would become his mentor – Craig McKay ("Reds" and "Silence of the Lambs") – while he was working on Jonathan Demme’s 1986 feature "Something Wild."


"Craig taught me everything I know," Bill said. "After editing a scene, he would huddle all of the assistants around the Moviola and get everyone involved on the creative level. On the second film I did with him – 'Married to the Mob' – he bumped me up to associate editor, which meant I was able to actually cut many scenes in the movie. Craig is one of the great editors in our business and I have tried to follow his example of passing the craft along to the people who work with me."

Bill credited the experience he garnered from McKay for helping him advance into a head editor’s chair within five years. Moving to Los Angeles in the early 1990’s, he found that having Demme and Scorsese films on his resume helped him rise through MOW’s to the hit series "Chicago Hope" and "Ally McBeal." It was on the wacky McBeal show that he met director Thomas Schlamme, who brought him onto the first season of "The West Wing" in 1999.

"The West Wing" was originally designed by its Emmy-winning creator Aaron Sorkin to tell the inside story of the White House administrative personnel who keep the wheels of government rolling – such as White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarr (played by John Spencer), Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and Press Secretary Claudia Jean "C.J." Cregg (Allison Janney). But over the seasons, the dominating character of the president of the United States – Josiah "Jed" Bartlet, Ph.D., as depicted by Martin Sheen – has become central to the story. The "Two Cathedrals" episode – for which Bill earned his editing Emmy – began after a random car accident has taken the life of President Jed’s beloved press secretary, Mrs. Landingham, whose portrayal by Kathryn Joosten had made the character an endearing figure to everyone on the staff.

Intertwined with the expected multiple plot threads – including a takeover of the U. S. Embassy in Haiti and the president’s disclosure that he has multiple sclerosis – the story of "Two Cathedrals" intercuts between Bartlet’s reminiscences of first meeting Mrs. Landingham at his boyhood parochial school during a controversy over a ceremony in its chapel, and the now grown-up president wrestling with the integrity of his Catholic faith triggered by her funeral service at Washington’s National Cathedral.

With the aid of his valued assistant editor, Arge O’Neal, Bill’s contribution to the episode was significant. For example, after the memorial ceremony in Act III, President Bartlet asks the Secret Service to seal the cathedral. Alone with his god, Bartlet vents his frustration over the senseless tragedies that have plagued his personal and political life. In a scene paced with an indomitably dramatic intensity, Bartlet walks down the cathedral’s aisle flinging the invective, "You’re a son-of-a-bitch, you know that?" toward the altar. "Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?" he implores the cut-glass imagery.

Bill’s editing of this powerful sequence was made possible by a maximum amount of coverage from director Schlamme, which allowed Johnson to cut between angles, tracking in front and behind the walking president, as well as a dolly shot from the side following the character of the president past the cathedral’s atmospheric columns, candles and pews.

"I listened to the words of the script," Bill explained, "and stayed with the emotions of the actor. As my teacher, Craig McKay, had put it, 'A good editor knows where to be, when.' The director and I did a couple of little line cuts to trim the dialogue, but basically the way I edited the scene was what ended up in the broadcast."


Perhaps Bill’s most spectacular editorial contribution to "Two Cathedrals" came during a compelling scene in Act IV. With thunder crashing outside his office windows, President Bartlet has to face the decision of whether to declare his candidacy for re-election at an impending press conference. Forgetting himself for a second, he calls out to the deceased Mrs. Landingham and – just as so often before – she walks through the door.

Sitting in chairs facing each other, the presidential secretary reminds the president that "there are people way worse off than you." In tightly subjective POV shots edited from one face to the other, the image of Mrs. Landingham reminds Bartlet of his purpose as president and of all the people who are depending on him to run again. Then, timed with a flash of lightning, Bill cut to an overhead shot of stark objectivity revealing that the chair Bartlet is confronting is totally empty. It’s a heart-stopping moment. And the cut was all the editor’s.

"They had filmed it both ways, with and without Mrs. Landingham in the scene," Bill recalled. "But when I saw the dailies, I immediately realized that inserting the take with the empty chair would have a tremendous impact. So that’s the one I used and we never looked back. After getting into the mindset of the people in the scene through alternating tight close-ups, dropping back to a wide shot with the empty chair revealed to the audience what was actually happening in the scene."

Bill screened his version for the director and it stood as he cut it. "This was one of those miraculous, wonderful experiences you’ll have every once in a while as an editor when the scripting, acting and photography is so good that everything just falls into place," he said. "That’s when the editing feels almost inevitable. It comes so naturally that you don’t have to work the material too hard to get to the final finished product."

The final episode of the second season, "Two Cathedrals," ends with President Bartlet just about to announce his decision whether or not to run again. Granted, its "cliffhanger" impact is somewhat diminished by the fact that "The West Wing" was scheduled for its season premiere this month – a time that probably foreshadows a new political campaign. But Emmy-winning editor Bill Johnson had already decided to take a new step in his career to pursue directing opportunities. In addition, his former assistant editor, Arge O’Neal, has moved on to edit a new Dick Wolf series with the working title "Trial and Error."

Paraphrasing one of our real life presidents, a success like "The West Wing" is a rising tide that lifts all boats.