Five-time Emmy nominated Editor Cindy Mollo, ACE talks with Filmmaker U about her work on "Book of Eli," "Mad Men," "House of Cards," and the hit Netflix show "Ozark"!
Cindy Mollo, ACE, began her career editing the critically acclaimed dramas "Homicide: Life on the Street," and "Oz" for producers Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana. She was nominated for an American Cinema Editors Eddie Award for her work on an episode of “Homicide” directed by Levinson. She edited the HBO films Boycott, Point of Origin and Path to Paradise, and received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Editing on "Dash and Lily," a film for A&E directed by Kathy Bates.
Mollo’s feature career includes a long collaboration with Allen Hughes. "Broken City" starring Russell Crowe marked Mollo’s fourth project with Allen. Previously she worked with The Hughes Brothers on the feature "The Book of Eli" and worked with Allen on his segment of the anthology film "New York, I Love You," and the television pilot and series "Touching Evil." Other feature credits include "Panic," "The Sentinel" and "Texas Killing Fields."
Mollo’s television work includes the award winning AMC series "Mad Men," for which she received her second Emmy Award nomination, HBO’s "John From Cincinnatti," and pilots for the series "Lucky," "Sleeper Cell," "The Riches" and "Happy Endings."
Most recently, Cindy edited on every season of the acclaimed Netflix series "Ozark."
Gordon Burkell (GB) - Today I'm joined by Cindy Mollo, editor of "Ozark," "House of Cards" and "Mad Men" among many other shows. When I think about "Ozark" or I think about "House of Cards," they all have a very specific, unique tone. How do you work with your team to create that tone?
Cindy Mollo (CM) - Anytime I interview for a new show, particularly a pilot, tone is the biggest thing that I like to talk about. If I've read the script, and I have a definite idea of what the tone is, I'll take a stab at it and say this sounds to me like it's X. With "Ozark" in my first meeting with producer Chris Munday, knowing that it starred Jason Bateman, but knowing nothing else... I said, I can see where this could be played as a drama or it could be played as a comedy. Chris said to me, “well, you're spot on.” Between Netflix, Chris and Jason Bar, there were some opinions, like maybe we could push it a little more popcorn and a little more funny. Jason and Chris very definitely wanted it to be a drama but where certain things were funny, The same way that they are funny in real life. We always talked about how things could be funny in the show, but they wouldn't be edited to be funny, and the actors weren't acting those moments to be funny. They just happened to be funny. That's been really challenging, in a good way, on "Ozark." You just always have to keep that in the back of your mind. In the third season, we had the character of Sue, the therapist. Her scenes were just so funny. I would never cut between close ups of them trying to make it funny and create a funny rhythm. I just let it play out in the two-shot and in the dialogue, the things that they said to each other, I found those scenes absolutely hysterical.
(GB) - How are they shooting "Ozark?" Is it similar to a comedy where they let the actors take runs at dialog and do various lines?
(CM) - No, they don't do that. The show is a drama and yet just happens to be funny. We don't do riffs, or change lines. For example "well that line was funny but suppose you changed it to coffee or suppose you changed it to chewing gum." We don't do any of that. It is done as a scripted, single camera, similar to film style. It's in the performances and in the writing, that humor emerges. We never ever, ever, ever, I think that's enough evers, play to it!
(GB) - Have you ever had a situation where you're given a moment that was intended to be tonally one way, but just doesn’t work and now you have to try to shift the tone?
(CM) - Years ago I had a moment in a pilot for Showtime called "Sleeper Cell." It's about a terrorist cell in America. It's not a comedy at all, but there's a moment in a scene between two characters. One character has just gotten out of prison, he's in a park and he meets a young woman. There's a moment where the two of them are sitting on a bench. At a point in the conversation the male character forgot his line for a fraction of a second, where she had asked him a question. He takes a really long beat, looks at her and she looks at him, it's a two shot. Then all of a sudden, he cracks up and says the thing he was supposed to say, that happened in only one take. It was wonderful as a character moment, not written, not planned. We didn't have any laughs ever in this pilot. It was such a sweet, endearing character moment that we needed to really believe him because he turns out to be something else later. So I kept it in, I knew the director would love it, because I'd worked with him a lot. I always think "some people might think I'm crazy for this, but I'm gonna go with it, because it just feels lovely and natural."
(GB) - Everyone always says editing is the last rewrite, where does the script end and you as the editor are allowed to manipulate the scene however you like?
(CM) - We have tone meetings on "Ozark," which I just love. We go through the script, often it's over the phone even before COVID, because we shoot in Atlanta. Chris would either be in L.A, and we'd sit in his office with the director on speakerphone, and we go through the script. We did this on "Mad Men" too. One of the best tone meetings I was ever in was with Matthew Weiner, on an episode for which I ended up being nominated for an Emmy. In both cases, the showrunner goes through the script, reading all the dialogue, sometimes the AD will read and Matthew or Chris will then explain "here's what I need from this scene. Here's what the scene is about. This scene is about the fact that Marty and Wendy have two different ideas for how to keep the family safe. And this speech (from season three, episode one)... each of them explains their thesis for how they're going to keep the family safe and their conflicting ideas, and it's going to be a battle between the two of them all season." In the "Mad Men" episode, called Maidenform, which was an episode about identity. As Matthew talked through each scene, I realized that the theme of identity is instilled in every character in every scene of this episode. Are you who you think you are? Are you who everyone else thinks you are? That theme was steeped in every scene. In "Ozark," every episode seemed to me, I didn't edit every episode, but it seemed to me to have a scene or two that was this clash between Marty's idea of what safety would be for the family and what Wendy's was. So you're asking where it starts, the editorial rewrite, let's call it. You pick the ball up from the showrunner or the writer of the episode - and you carry it! As you go along, you might find, like that example I gave from "Sleeper Cell," you might find a moment that's different. It doesn't hurt the tone, it doesn't hurt the theme, it gives you a little something. It gives you a little spice, a little flavor, texture, all those things! I'm always looking to add stuff like that. And sometimes I've had this debate with people where they will say we don't need that. We want to keep the storytelling as lean as possible, and I'll say, "yeah, but this is kind of cool!” Sometimes there is room for that. Sometimes it's a distraction, and you don't need it. I like to think that you're looking for those opportunities, it's not like putting your stamp on it, but it's showing that you've listened to what the show is about and you're looking for ways to augment it.
(GB) - When I am teaching, and I have to explain the tone, it's really hard to explain it to someone without just showing them a scene or watching a film. How do you discuss tone? What is your discussion like with the director and the showrunner?
(CM) - First of all, I think tone is everything. Tone is like the filter that you are telling your story through, it's going to determine your style, your attitude, how you approach things, and it's going to allow some things to be a part of your style and disallow other things. In the pilot example I just gave, it always had voiceover. But I added freeze frames, and the freeze frames made it a little bit smart ass. I think it made the tone a little bit cheeky. I've never been sure looking back with many, many more years of experience, if that was right or wrong. There were people who loved it, and people who didn't love it, and the pilot didn't get picked up. So it's a filter, it lets certain things in and leaves certain things out. I think of it as my guiding principle. When I had my first meeting with Jason, I didn't have the job yet. But he talked about what he wanted for the show. He said that he didn't want to spoon feed people information. But it was the way he said it that I found really interesting because he said, "we always want to be meditative, hard to get..." I always forget the third word! I have posted it in a notebook somewhere, but the third word was something like "disciplined." What he meant was, we want to make people lean in, we want to make them have to listen, to get what we're doing. We don't want to always show her what she's looking at on her phone, here's what she sees across the room. We want to perhaps stay on her face and see that she's confused and that makes us sit up and say, "Oh my god, what is she seeing," you're leaning in, trying to figure out as the characters are trying to figure something out. That is part of the tone. And that is something that if you want to distill that into a rule would state, we don't tend to show a lot of cutaways meant to illustrate every little thing. We don't spoon feed. Tone is a filter, a guiding principle. If you don't know your tone, you can make mistakes that will confuse the audience and they won't know what to think. And while you don't want to spoon feed them with cutaways, you want to help them understand the story that you're telling and your point of view.
(GB) - The director or the showrunner will have shot and take preferences but how do you assess an actor's performance?
(CM) - When I'm talking to my assistants, I tell them to pay attention to your first experience of the footage. Especially in comedy. What makes you laugh out loud? If it's a horror story, what feels creepy? What stirs you? What gives you that little tingly feeling that makes you almost mist up? What gives you some emotional response? Write it down. If you're afraid you'll forget it, put a check next to it. Do something! But don't forget your first feeling when you watch dailies. My assistants sometimes come in and say, “Wow there's some amazing stuff in dailies today”. I say, ‘No, no, don't tell me, I don't want to watch the footage with your thoughts in my head! I want nothing in my head.” I just want the footage to tell me things. That is really, really important. In an actor’s performance, I find so much happens in the pauses both in a comedy and drama. It's all about those moments. So it's all about timing. It's how a character says the lines, how it's all timed, you may start watching dailies and say "oh my god, that will be so cool if right here, I cut to the other character! And then we come back and this person is still thinking about it." I start to create it in my mind. But I try to really just watch the footage and let it make me feel things.
(GB) - My wife and I love comedy and go to a lot of comedy clubs. Comedians will often talk about how important timing is but some will also talk about how they use comedy to overcome difficult experiences. I wonder how much an actor's difficult experiences are able to translate to the screen?
(CM) - I can’t speak for actors but there are a lot of creative people who are replaying emotions from pain in their past. I think as an editor, you watch an actor portraying a moment and it can tap into your own past. It's why we all love watching fictional stories on TV and on the big screen. We get to live in someone else's world for a little while and we can forget whatever horrible thing happened to us at school that day, or our parents are getting divorced, or whatever it is. Actors bring their pain and joy to the experience as well. We're all just looking to recognize the same emotions in each other. I'm working on a project now that I can't talk about, but in watching the footage, I would have days and days where I thought, "oh my god, I can totally relate to this person. That's me, but me on steroids" This character is so different from me but I had to find that connection. It helped me make my way through what was probably100 hours of footage. So in order to help myself remember it, I had to connect, I was making note of what I was feeling, but I was also connecting and relating it to my own experience.
(GB) - How do you make sure that what you've been working on will be something that the audience will relate to and be able to connect with?
(CM) - I'm sure my process is like many editors, I'll sit down and look at what I've got. I'll put cards in for the stuff that's missing because it has not been shot yet.
A number of years ago, I was watching a movie with my younger sister, Lisa. She would talk while we were watching the movie. And she'd say, "Why is he doing that? Where's he going? What happened?" And I would respond, "I don't know, I've never seen this before." but then I stopped saying that because I realized that she was narrating her internal process as she watched the movie. As an editor, I not only want to make sure that I answer those questions for her, but also that I control how the answers are given so that it gives her a sense of suspense or joy. I call these passes where I look at my show before it's fully assembled, "my sister Lisa pass." It's where I try to make sure that the scenes that are coming in are all the answers to the questions, or at least I understand the questions that an audience might have and the answers that they might need. The answers might not come in that episode, they might be setting up an audience to expect the answer three or four episodes later. But I like to make sure I'm aware of the conversation that will be had. That was such a long answer. I hope that made some sense!
(GB) - Yes, It is all about how we make sure the audience relates to this character. Relate to this show. Which is so important, right?
(CM) - The first television show I worked on in New York was "Homicide: Life on the Street." I loved that show. I remember rhythms and dialogue scenes from that show to this day. I just thought it was such a great experience, such a great way to start my career. When I moved to Los Angeles, I said to myself, “Always follow the best writing you can." Luckily, because I started on that show, it connected me with certain writers and directors from that show who I worked with later. I think the storytelling on "Ozark" is phenomenal. When I start reading scripts, I say to myself, "oh my God!" It's never anything I would have seen coming and it's always something I'm delighted to be a part of making it happen.
(GB) - Is there a scene that stands out for you that was really difficult to cut that you are particularly proud of?
(CM) - That's a tough one... Sometimes the scenes that are the hardest to cut, you wouldn't expect. The hardest scenes for me are a group of people having a conversation around a dinner table. All the different angles to keep track off, keeping the best performances, controlling what shoulder you're over. These types of scenes are technically difficult to manage the eye lines and the dialogue. Sometimes you can have a scene that is deceptively simple. We had a moment in season three, in "Ozark." Spoiler alert, the therapist Sue has not fared well, and they're getting rid of her car. And we have just a couple of angles, one looking down on a patch of dirt. That will eventually have water and a car. But right now it is just dirt. And then two actors standing on this little bluff above this dirt. Then we have some reverse angles on them and I have to create something out of nothing because I don't have the car and I don’t have the water. It helps to put in water sound so you have the "glug-glug" of what eventually will be there. I think about how the car has all the windows up so it will have air in it, so it will Bob a little bit but then it will go under and how many shots do I need for the audience to realize "oh my God, that's her car! Oh my god."
This goes back to “the sister Lisa pass” because I know that there's going to be some people saying "how did they get the car in the water? Did they drive it with a cinder block on the gas pedal? And should the car be going in the front end first?” I have to have all those conversations with myself. And you have to have some time for the audience to think about the poor woman. Is she in the car? Is she somewhere else? What happened? How was she killed? So that's a scene with very, very little footage, most of it still to be imagined. No car, no water, and you have to make something of it that makes people feel something that's actually kind of fun. But it's tricky.
(GB) - I have one last question that I like to ask everyone I interview. What is your favorite guilty pleasure film or show?
(CM) - That's an easy question. I absolutely love "Galaxy Quest."
(GB) - Oh, that's a great one.
(CM) - I think that it has the best dialogue. It's hysterical! Yeah, that's my guilty pleasure.
(GB)- Thank you so much for letting me interview you.
(CM) - Thank you for having me!
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