"Editing is starting to become recognized as the true art form that it is," 2005 Emmy winner Michael Berenbaum reflects. "When dealing with modern digital edit systems, it has become far less a technical skill and much more a huge contribution to the craft of storytelling."
Berenbaum should know, having received this year's Emmy award for "Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series" during the Creative Arts Primetime Emmy presentations at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles Sept. 11 for cutting the pilot of ABC's wildly successful "Desperate Housewives" series.
"From the minute I read the script, I knew this show would be a hit," he said, "and having worked with its director, Charles McDougall, on several projects before we knew the show was going to be something special."
For those few who have not yet been hooked by it, "Desperate Housewives" is the ongoing comedy/drama/evening soap opera from Touchstone Television about the women (and their men) who live on Wisteria Lane. Their only bond, as one of the girlfriends, Susan Mayer (played by Teri Hatcher), says in the pilot is trying to avoid "living lives of quiet desperation." The efforts of her fellow female combatants against complacency often lead to combinations of plot, character and confusion that have made "Desperate Housewives" one of ABC's top-rated weekly series.
Berenbaum had been fascinated by editing ever since he started making 8mm amateur productions by age 10. He majored in film at New York University and got his first chance to hang out on a set during the filming of Francis Ford Coppola's 1984 "The Cotton Club" while he was an intern at Kaufman-Astoria Studios, where he tended to haunt the edit bays. Berenbaum moved slowly up the ranks of assistant editors, most significantly working on three Coen brothers films ("Raising Arizona," "Miller's Crossing" and "Barton Fink"), and where he gained insight into the essence of filmmaking.
"Joel Coen had been an editor before becoming a director and I learned a great deal from him," Berenbaum recalled. "I still find myself asking how he would do things when I am cutting a sequence today."
Berenbaum's first opportunity to sit in the editor's chair came on Daniel Iron's 1988 comedy, "Bum Rap" and he moved on to work on films such as "Mac" and "Illuminata" with John Turturro in the '90s, and 2000's "Chinese Coffee" directed by Al Pacino.
But by then, Berenbaum had also expanded into television, editing the pilot for a modest little cable series called "Sex in the City" for HBO which, in 2002, brought him his first Emmy nomination along with an ACE Eddie Award. He had become so proficient on the Avid Media Composer that he was often cutting episodes from two different series on the same day. Then last year, when "Sex in the City" director Charles McDougall was signed for the pilot of "Desperate Housewives," McDougall brought Berenbaum out to Hollywood to cut the project.
The pilot's quirksome plot and tone are established during a prologue scene when Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong) tops her perfect suburban housewife day by shooting herself in the head. The rest of the show is structured around her ongoing posthumous narrative, sort of like an "Our Town" from the grave, and Berenbaum often used this voice-over as the spine around which to pace his edits.
The copious coverage provided by director McDougall and wrangled by Berenbaum's tireless editing assistant, Judd Maslansky, gave him many opportunities to fine tune the scenes through his editor's art. For example, during the opening suicide scene, we originally would have been shown the woman's body falling out of frame after pulling the trigger. But this seemed too graphic, so Berenbaum matched the action of the body's collapse with its reflection in the glass of a family photo on the mantlepiece.
This was an editorial selection of particular sensitivity since the script called for the next shot to begin with the nosy neighbor, Martha Huber (Christine Estabrook) dipping her finger in some spilled tomato sauce just as she hears the gun go off. If the shot selection during Mary Alice's suicide had been less delicate, the blood/sauce juxtaposition would have given the audience a dramatically different expectation of the comedy to come.
Another scene enhanced in the edit bay came during the fourth act when Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria) is forced to attend a party with her husband Carlos (Ricardo Antonio Chavira). On the way, Carlos notices their front lawn has not been mowed. Gabrielle panics because she had waylaid their teenage gardener into her bedroom that afternoon, so she disappears from the party and feverously cuts the lawn while still in her party dress.
"I had edited the scene together, and it was kind of funny with Gabrielle's long dress dragging through the lawn clippings behind the mower," Berenbaum says. "But then we found a piece of salsa music in a library, and I adjusted the cuts to match the music which punched up the humor. It was a challenge to make the scene work with temp music, but the results fit so well that even though Danny Elfman eventually wrote the theme music for the show, the producers kept that original temp track in for the final version of the lawn mowing sequence."
Later, lovelorn single mom Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher) learns that serial divorcee Edie Britt (Nicollette Sheridan) may have invited plumber Mike Delfino (Jamie Denton) over for an evening's tryst, so Susan sneaks into Edie's living room to spy on them. Finding a dress and undergarments cluttered on the floor, Susan sits down to console herself with a chocolate bonbon and despondently flips the discarded bra over her shoulder. Unseen, it knocks a candle into the drapes and catches the house on fire. Things like this seem to happen not infrequently on Wisteria Lane.
But while the scene was being filmed, the curtains sprang into flame too quickly for Susan's emotions to have time to properly play out. So Berenbaum stole the image of a piece of intact drapery from a different take and composited it over the section where the curtains had prematurely started to burn. This let him delay the advent of the fire to extend the emotional tension of the scene.
Although Berenbaum was cutting the scene on an Avid Film Cutter, the trick worked successfully for preview audiences at the Academy Theater even when they saw the episode in HD projection before it was in its final form. Later, Richard Russel, the online editor at Modern Video Film in Burbank who mastered the pilot episode using a Sony BVH-9100 linear system with a Sony MDVS-8000 switcher, was able to tweak the composite so successfully that the replacement for the burning drapes in the final air version is undetectable.
Not wanting to stay away from his family in New York for too long, Michael Berenbaum left the rest of the season of "Desperate Housewives" to other West Coast editors. He's now back in the Big Apple editing a feature film directed by Allen Coulter called "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" about the mysterious death of TV's Superman, George Reeves.
"Editing is an invisible art," Emmy-winning editor Berenbaum said, " and most people have no idea about its contribution to either TV shows or movies. But in reality, what we create is the final version of an idea that started out on paper. It's a skill that needs to be appreciated."
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