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Stuart Bass on Editing A Series of Unfortunate Events

Stuart Bass joins Gordon to discuss A Series of Unfortunate Events for Netflix and what the difference is between working for Broadcasters and Neflix.

Go to aotg.com/cuttingroom for more interviews including another interview with Stuart Bass about his other work.


The Cutting Room: I'm wondering how you got involved with A Series of Unfortunate Events?

Stuart Bass: I started working with Barry on Notes From the Underbelly, and then we've done a couple of pilots and then we did Pushing Daisies together and then a few more pilots. I think I've done maybe five or six projects with him, and when this show came up I was the first one he called and I made myself free, and here I am.

The Cutting Room: This is your first project on Netflix if I'm not mistaken. Is that correct?

Stuart Bass: Yes. Yes.

The Cutting Room: So, what would you say is the difference between working on a project for Netflix versus working on a project for television? Like, what are some of the adjustments to the process?

Stuart Bass: I think the biggest change is the network executives. We're working with two guys, Brian Wright and Ted Biaselli, who are really wonderful and they're not invasive. They kind of come to everything as collaborators and you have pretty smart suggestions but they're purely suggestions that you can take or leave. Daniel Handler who is a very close friend of Lemony Snicket's and Barry, from the writing process and to the directing process [received notes] and then the editing process and production [received notes], it's just terrific. (laughs)

The Cutting Room: (laughs)

Stuart Bass: There's a different feeling. I was getting very frustrated working on network shows, where they were hugely invasive and, you know, making casting changes and changing the scripts last minute, and when we got into editing they were making the show worse. And then they wonder why the ratings are dropping and nobody's watching them. So there's a huge contrast.

The Cutting Room: You mention how the original system, you know, if you worked on a television show they might get involved in the editing process?

Stuart Bass: Yes.

The Cutting Room: Was Netflix involved in any way, not, you know, forcing changes or anything, but, uh, in a collaborative way?

Stuart Bass: Oh, yeah, they're terrific. You know, they watch the show and then they give their notes, and, are their notes really any different than what you get from a major network? Maybe not but they're not given with the idea that you have to do 'em.

And I think that's why you see shows like Stranger Things. Like, at HBO when Chris Albrecht was there, you had kind of the same thing.

That's why you see shows come out that have more of a vision. Back when the networks were more like boutiques, they were smaller, they weren't an arm of a huge corporation it's hard to think that NBC once was a boutique, but, like, you know, Brandon Tartikoff was the president and they weren't as invasive then either, and you end up with kind of more creative network shows.

The Cutting Room: Well it seems like, from what I can tell, that they choose the right people or they choose the creatives that they like, or, uh, see that they have a vision and let them just run with it.

Stuart Bass: Yeah. Well, you know in network, NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, they are terrific. (laughs). You know, their development team, they, they love their writers they develop with and their producers, and they hire the best they can find. But it's the relationship after that. I was on a network pilot and they used to refer to the network executives as, it's a Steinbeck book, Mice and Men. That's what they used to call the network woman, uh, Lennie. (laughs) Yeah, the writers use to call her Lennie from Mice and Men.

So it's not a matter of them not caring or not, you know, or not hiring the best. It's a matter of their relationship with the shows and their power. And, I think a lot of that gets out to this. They're big corporations and they're not answering to people's heart, they're answering to the bottom line.

The Cutting Room: It's unfortunate, but they, I mean, sometimes amazing shows get bought. Like, The Office being an example that you worked on. It seems that they let that go, like, let people run with that and create this amazing show.

Stuart Bass: That was Kevin Reilly at the time, who's kind of on the outs. (Laughs). But, he was very involved when we first developed the show, the first eight episodes, but in a good way.

The Cutting Room: This show, [A Series of Unfortunate Events] you cut the first two episodes for this series.

Stuart Bass: Yes.

The Cutting Room: One of the things for cutting pilots or first episodes, you're given this task or you have to work with the directors, the producers, the writers, to create the overall feel of the show. You know, how the show's going to be structured and look and feel and, you know, choose the acting etc. So, how did you approach cutting the first two episodes and work with Barry and everyone to get the show to work in this particular tone?

Stuart Bass: The only person I'm working with really is Barry. Anything that comes from the writers gets filtered through him and Netflix Barry and I sit and talk before we shoot about tone, and in this case it was very similar to Pushing Daisies. There's a very similar kind of lyricism they were looking for. This one has a little more comedy than Pushing Daisies, but Pushing Daisies was ultimately a comedy, and on almost the same page in that comic styles that it came together. My first cuts, Barry really liked them. The first scenes we did were the beach scene when the orphans come to the beach. You know, the beginning of the episode, and the music choices and the, the rhythm when it goes faster and you know slowing things down a little more than normal at certain points. You know, I put it together and he was so excited he started showing the network these cuts early on, right on the set as I was putting the dailies together.

The Cutting Room: (laughs). Were you nervous-... were you like, "Wait, wait, let me finish (laughs) before ..."

Stuart Bass: No, because I thought it looked really good and, you know, we had some composer cues, you know, that just work well. And you know, the way I work is I cut the dailies every day and I put the music and the sound effects and everything in as I'm cutting. So I made it look great.

The Cutting Room:You mentioned working with the music, so did you have anything from the composers at that point or was that just your own choice?

Stuart Bass: I like to try and stay within the realm of the composer that we're using. It might be more of a habit from working at other studios where they don't really allow you to do anything else. You don't attempt scores from somebody else. You can get into trouble.

The Cutting Room: Now, the other thing I have to note, so getting into the show. My wife and I both really love the opening titles, and I originally had written a note about them and then I scratched it out, and I was like, "You know, it usually goes off to a title designer and someone does something." And then Chrissie emailed me and said that you had been involved in doing the titles. I was wondering, can you tell me about your involvement in the titles for this project?

Stuart Bass: Yeah, it started with Barry who had an idea. He wanted the titles to be different in every episode. The way he put it is he wanted it to look like Monday Night Football titles, which I had no clue what that meant. (laughs).

The Cutting Room: (laughs). I'm assuming he means the NFL and not, like, Friday Night Lights?

Stuart Bass: I guess the NFL, yeah, the NFL. But apparently they change it, like The Simpsons, you know, when the blackboard changes every week. That's what he meant. So he had asked Daniel Handler the guy who knows Lemony very well, to write the lyrics for an opening title song. Then we went to Nick Urata, who's the composer, and, you know, he wrote the music for it and sang the song. And then I got the credit copy and there were 22 credits to put into this, and I'm thinking, like, nobody wants to watch a main title longer than like, you know, 40 seconds to a minute, and 22 credits is like a lot to squeeze in. I think Stranger Things has like four. (laughs). And then they spill them into their show.

So I put together that with this temp track, Nick had made and the credit copy, I kind of put together like a template or a simulation to kind of say what 22 credits are going to look like in a minute against what kind of backplates and using stuff from the show, and ran it through Barry and he goes, "That is a great idea. Come up to Vancouver and shoot it." I was like, "Ummm, Okay." (laughs).

The Cutting Room: (laughs).

Stuart Bass: So, you know, at the time I used the stuff that we had of Lemony's wall and the photos and such and then cuts form the show. So, you know, the concept is basically that Lemony is telling this story maybe 20 years after, and he's collecting evidence about what happened to the Baudelaires. He's got newspaper clippings and he's got police files and he's got like the spy glasses, he's got props that have survived, and he's putting the yarn and the push pins and the photos together like they do for police evidence in TV shows. They probably don't do it for real (laughs).

So the next thing I know I'm in Vancouver and it's 7:30 in the morning, and I'm standing before a wall with pushpins and yarn and photos and I'm putting this thing together. And the DP, Bernard Couture, he came over and he got very excited and he pulled out a snorkel lens and he had lenses with bellows, so we could do like weird focus maneuvers and stuff.

And we had a couple cameras, so we kind of broke ourselves into two units and I had a shot list of about 80 shots I wanted to shoot, and we got all the shots for the main title, and came back to LA and worked with Nick a little bit to get the song in a structure that I could have an intro and middle part and, you know, the titling. We recorded the song, in a little different fashion, and then I put on my best rock video editor hat and put it together. I used Sapphire Effects. I love Sapphire Effects. It's so fun, I could use multiple layers, so because I wanted it to feel like kind of archival footage that Lemony had found and might have survived fires and you know the years and some of the stuff was shot in black and white film, some was maybe bad video.

I used all those plugins in Sapphire to do kind of a base layer, and then I used vignette plugins so you can kind of focus your eyes to where you are. And they have a terrific vignette that lets you not only change the darkness but also the focus. And then there's like a color layer above that to throw all the color off. Anyway, I put that together.

The Cutting Room: Which is funny, because I would have thought it would have been After Effects heavy.

Stuart Bass: Uh, no, I just didn't have it. Yeah, and After Effects becomes a, you know, a different work flow. And then, I hired some friends of mine from Arrested Development days, Ellen and Lynda Kahn have a company called TwinArt, and they did the titles for Arrested Development. They came up with the text animation.

The Cutting Room: And Neil Patrick Harris, his character sort of spans a wide range of emotions and is sort of bigger than life, I guess you could say. So I'm wondering what the rushes were like, or the dailies that you received from his acting. Like, did he give multiple deliveries? What was, the footage like?

Stuart Bass: He worked hard and he comes onto the set, you know, very well rehearsed, and there isn't a lot of variation. He pretty much nails it.

The Cutting Room: Oh, really? Because sometimes I've gotten footage or I've seen footage where actors will give it in different ways so that you can sort of play with it in post, but he's worked with Barry beforehand to hone what he wants?

Stuart Bass: You know, he's got... he's got chops. (Laughs) There might be subtle differences but there's not a range of selections for him.

The Cutting Room: And the show's style is very unique. So were you given a lot of notes on how to approach the editing style or were allowed to work with the footage.

Stuart Bass: That's me, I just (laughs). of course I get notes after I do it, but like I said, Barry and I both enjoy really uncomfortable moments onscreen and holding things sometimes a little bit longer than it should. An example is the point in the very beginning when Poe comes down and tells the children that they're now orphans and that they're parents perished in a fire. So, you know, the trick to finding a deadpan look from the kids, I can't remember if I did this or not, but it probably involved having to slow down the shot, maybe split screen it, because I don't even want to see one of the kids blink-

So, it's slowed down more than normal. In my initial cut of that scene, I had things really slow so I used the master and the close up on Poe, so it really became like Kabuki theater. Barry's first note was it was a little too cutty, so, I cut back on that, but still tried to keep the length longer.

You know, there's a thing in there where if you look carefully, you'll see that Lemony is leaving the scene, he leaves the scene when Poe comes. You can see it in the footage. Your eye gets distracted, but he leaves much earlier than he has. What I did is I cut a mat in the master and put Lemony in to keep him there longer. And then there was a piece of film where Patrick Warburton looked like he was going to say something then he just walked off, and I think it was more of a mistake than anything, but I used it so it looked like he was going to stay after Poe arrives, and then he walks off. So that extended the moment more and added another emotional beat. That's pretty much an example of how much things get manipulated, to make it way slower than what you'd want. There's an Office episode called Health Care, it was one of our first episodes, and Steve Carell kind of goes comatose at one point (laughs) at the end. And it's almost the same thing. That had to be built out with slow downs and people's reactions way more than the way it was performed. And I think you have to earn those moments. Like, if you pace everything up until that and you can keep things going, then you can earn that moment where something's playing more like, like a 1960s Italian movie. (Laughs).

The Cutting Room: One of the other things that would have been tricky in this, and I don't know what your involvement would have been, but the original books were for younger readers, but what I've discovered in my research is that it has a huge fan base that ranges to include adults. So were you cognizant of that in the cutting process and were you approaching the footage any differently to try and make sure that you kept the adult readers, or the adult fans, engaged or did you focus primarily on, on the young viewers?

Stuart Bass: No, this is absolutely cut for adults. It's not cut for, like, a Disney show. If this was a Disney show, which I've worked on, they wanted everything, like, colorful and has to just move along at a clip, and they'd be afraid of having... You know, you can have emotional moments, but you wouldn't build them with that kind of intense dramatic intent.

The Cutting Room: I have one last question that I like to ask everyone, but we've already done an interview where I've asked you that question. So, I do have a different question for you, and that is you've worked on some of the, you know, some of my favorite shows and some that have really left their mark on pop culture. So I'm wondering what shows haven't you worked on that you wish you had?

Stuart Bass: Oh, boy. Uh, sometimes it's the opposite. Like, I would have wished that, a lot of times I wish I wasn't on Pushing Daisies so I could have enjoyed watching them. (laughs). Yeah. Uh, so, I mean, you know, and the shows that I really like, like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, I love these shows and I love watching them and it doesn't occur to me that, you know, if I was working on them then I wouldn't be working on anther show. So, (laughs).

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