The Spies Next Door: Editors Track the KGB in Suburbia for ‘The Americans’

Michael Berenbaum, left, Amanda Pollack and Daniel Valverde.

by Rob Feld • portraits by John Clifford

Screenwriters aren’t the only ones benefitting from the richness of material now playing on cable television, or streaming from Netflix. The complexity of subject matter and shooting styles, previously the domain of theatrical film, are allowing series editors to stretch their legs as well. The New York-based editors of the FX Networks’ recently Emmy Award-nominated The Americans — Michael Berenbaum, A.C.E., Amanda Pollack and Daniel Valverde — are seeing differences, even as some of them cut other shows while on break between seasons.

“I feel like we have the opportunity to be cinematic on The Americans, in contrast to the show I’m on now, which tends to be more traditionally cut,” says Valverde, whose television credits include Picket FencesThe PracticeDawson’s CreekJoan of ArcadiaDamages and Royal Pains.

The ironically titled The Americans, series — which returns for its second season in February — follows the Reagan-era story of two KGB agents, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) under deep cover in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Their KGB-imposed marriage has nevertheless spawned a true, if complicated, relationship and set of allegiances, complicated further by the two children they have together. It’s a suspense story tempered by its relationships, with many story threads to be serviced.

A scene from The Americans.
Photo by Craig Blankenhorn. Courtesy of FX

“Production is fast-paced, but it’s exciting to work on something that’s so close to being out in the world, as opposed to features, where you may wait a year,” says Pollack, who began in commercials, assisted on features and has edited series like Lights Out, Skins and Smash. “Editing is kind of a lonely craft, but here you come out of the room and there are other editors and assistants to talk to. There’s a kind of in-the-trenches-together thing that happens.”

“I’ve had a fantastic time on this show,” says Berenbaum, who has straddled features and TV, cutting films like BasquiatChinese CoffeeBefore Night FallsSex and the City and What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and series like The WireNurse Jackie and Sex and the City.

“For someone like me, who did Sex and the City on and off for 13 years and became known as that guy who does romantic comedy or female-oriented shows, it was a chance for me to cut some fight scenes and car chases. You don’t want to get pigeonholed.”

The three editors spoke to CineMontage about their experiences working on the series.

Amanda Pollack.

CineMontage: Series usually find their voices over their first season. Did your style or way of approaching the material change over time with The Americans?

Michael Berenbaum:
 Any new show tries to figure out what it’s trying to be. Different directors put their own spin on things until it works its way into what it will ultimately become. You have different writers and you have the showrunners keeping it on course, but there are style variations along the way in how it’s being shot. And you’re developing the characters, that’s the main thing. I think that’s what has made this show so unique and endearing to a lot of people; these characters, who you are going to love, are the bad guys. It puts the audience in such an awkward position. But from the pilot on, you are behind these people.

Daniel Valverde: When I interviewed for the show, one of the words the producers used to describe it was propulsive. Of course, it’s often true that fast-paced editing is more engaging, but when I heard the word “propulsive,” a question mark went off in my head. Part of what I really liked about the pilot were the times when things were allowed to play out, and you didn’t feel like you had to force the story because there’s so much latent tension built into the storytelling.

Early on, I was looking for where to extend a scene rather than where to trim it. Obviously, it really boils down to what the story demands, but I felt like a scene seems to have more weight, gravity and dramatic effect when you let a moment linger. One that comes to mind is when Philip is abducted by who we think is an FBI agent. It took me a while to find a rhythm for it. It just got better and better the more we let it play itself out in real time. The tension in the scene was so great, it was such an unexpected thing — and you’re only making it less by trimming it.

Amanda Pollack: The focus did end up being about family, loyalty and betrayal. It’s the development of the marriages — particularly between Philip and Elizabeth — that’s interesting; what their love means and becomes, what their loyalties are among their country, each other and their children. It’s where the show’s depth is. But of course, it has all that exciting spy intrigue and action as well, which makes it fun to watch.

CM: With this renaissance in cable television writing, I’m wondering if you feel liberated as an editor as well?

DV: Absolutely. As the shows get more sophisticated, there is a recognition that the audience is different, and we don’t feel the need to be so simplistic in the way we present material. There’s a wonderful scene in one of my episodes where Noah Emmerich’s character is interrogating a KGB agent they’ve captured. He essentially has a monologue about hunting. We play almost half of it on a push-in without cutting away, then almost the other half on a push-in on his abductee. It created a real sense of weight and tension, not being able to see what the other person was thinking and feeling at every moment, anticipating what might be going on off-camera. That is something you get to do more in features, but something I’m starting to see more in television — a recognition that you lose opportunities to tell the story well when you are simply playing dialogue. The Americans was a phenomenal experience because I got to rethink how I approached material.

A scene from The Americans.
Photo by Craig Blankenhorn. Courtesy of FX

CM: Tell me about the workflow on The Americans. You don’t typically share episodes, do you? 

DV: Passing episodes is rare. In many ways, it’s been my favorite professional experience because I feel there’s a lot of trust placed in the editors’ work, and a lot of acceptance. It’s a little more soul-satisfying when you get to see something through from start to finish. What I really appreciate about The Americans is that we have a head writer/executive producer in Joel Fields, who is the rare writer who isn’t precious about words. He appreciates when words are necessary, makes cuts for the story, and gives us notes that allow us to preserve our best work. They weren’t so specific that we were forced to do something one way, which I think is always the best way to work with an editor. If you tell me what you think is wrong with the scene I will overturn every stone looking for the best solution, but if you tell me to extend the master, it’s a whole different ballgame.

CM: The show is a suspense story with a lot of pieces to juggle. Have you found yourselves sticking to the way the scripts are ordered, or is there a good deal of shuffling involved to maintain suspense and dole out information?

AP: It really depends on the script and how it looks once shot. Sometimes you realize you’re too long without being with a character, or the performance is just different from what you expected, so it feels like it needs to be toned in a different way, and scenes moved around. FX didn’t give us time limitations, which was great. We were over by up to six minutes and it was okay. It was beautiful because you could let the episode play as it was cut, through all its machinations. It would go through the directors’ and showrunners’ hands, then DreamWorks — including Steven Spielberg — then the network. The pilot was way over time, so they put it into a 90-minute slot, but even within the hour slots, we had the leeway to be a little short or a little long.

DV: For me, the suspense is often achieved with pacing. Obviously, it was the construction of scenes as well, but these scripts are pretty tight. It wasn’t until my very last episode that we did a major restructure on a script. The penultimate episode was all setup, designed to get everything in motion for the finale. As a result, it didn’t have a lot happening; it was more suggestion of what might happen, and that was tricky.

But Joel in particular really had a vision for how to restructure it to keep the various storylines moving well. I think there’s a sense that you should distribute each story evenly throughout the script. What you then find is that none of the storylines really develops a sense of momentum. You have to pull some scenes together and get an individual story moving before you can move onto the next.

Daniel Valverde.

CM: Production schedules are compressing so much now. How are you dealing with it?

MB: I had worked as an assistant or apprentice on films where editors were working around the clock, putting in hundred-hour weeks. And I thought, “Is this what my life is going to be? This is insane.” Then, when I became an editor, I realized it doesn’t need to be that way. You can get the work done and still go home at a normal hour. I developed a style where I know what I need to do that day and I can get through it in a timely fashion. Especially on a TV show, I know that my dailies for the next day won’t be ready until a certain time, so if I leave myself a scene from the previous day, I can still go in early and work on it before that day’s work is ready to go. I pace myself.

It’s unfortunate, but on every job the schedule gets tighter and tighter and you’re expected to do more. Years ago, when projects were still being cut on film, the editor cut the picture and you had maybe two tracks — one of dialogue and one of sound effects and music. Other people did their specialty work. Now, every editor is expected to complete a finished sound effects job and score the movie, and nobody even wants to see it before that’s done, especially when you send a cut to the network or studio. The schedules get shorter and shorter, and you have a day after they’ve finished shooting to finish your cut, before the director comes in to work with you. You have to be fast to keep up.

The Americans was the craziest schedule I’ve ever worked on because, not only did the original production schedule get delayed by a month, but then Hurricane Sandy hit and the sound stages where they were building the sets were flooded, so that pushed production by another two weeks. We were six weeks delayed but the air dates never changed. So all of post got compressed. I had never seen a first post schedule come out of the studio where you were already working every weekend. We made it, but it was nuts.

Michael Berenbaum.

AP: It’s hard on the assistants, and we actually had to bring on more people than the network initially thought we needed. In fact, I co-edited the finale with Michael because the script was so ambitious, and the time frame didn’t allow for it to be done without two of us. At a certain point, how could the work not get compromised?

In the digital age where things get done so fast, you have technical difficulties to deal with, and there’s still the viewing time of looking at the dailies  — numerous times, hopefully — and of putting something together and looking at it, which hasn’t changed. You just don’t really have that time to step away and come back with a different perspective.

DV: In part, you develop tricks for digesting material really quickly. What I will often do is look at one setup of every take, from head to tail. Then I’ll essentially know the general pattern in my head, and I’ll cut that pattern using every take. That gives me a much better way to compare readings. It’s a lot like using the script function, where you can play one take/reading against another. I have to watch the dailies anyway and in going through that process, I’ll feel like I’ve digested them fairly thoroughly. It sometimes saves me time.

Once in a while I’ll look at it and say, “This wasn’t the best pattern,” and I’ll have to re-examine the footage. I feel like you also learn to protect yourself. As you get a little more experience, and hopefully a little more respect, people will listen when you say, “I feel like this is not going to end up being the best thing for the show. If you compromise my ability to work my best, I can only do so much.” Ultimately, I have found in this industry that when you work for really good people, they treat you well.

CM: Unfortunately, that seems to be part of a larger trend in general.

MB: Absolutely. It’s a creative process that takes time. You lose the opportunity to sit back and review what’s done, to mull it over and find a chance to make something better. Especially on a TV show, you don’t have that chance. It’s on the air the next week. Luckily, we never let something go until we’re happy with it, so I don’t feel like were cheating the show. It’s still being done to the highest standard — it just has to get there faster.

About Rob Feld 78 Articles
Rob Feld is a filmmaker, a regular contributor to DGA Quarterly, and contributing editor of Newmarket Press’ Shooting Script book series. He teaches screenwriting and directing at New York University.