Farrel Levy and Stan Salfas : Creative Challenges in Television (Part 2)

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Farrel Levy, A.C.E. and Stan Salfas, A.C.E. are both supervising editors on prominent television series — Levy on NYPD Blue and Salfas on Felicity. While they have worked on many types of projects, both have found that television offered them unexpected opportunities, including the chance to direct their own episodes. In this continuation of last issue’s conversation, they talk about how a television series is put together, how editing has prepared them to be effective directors and how working in television has made it easier to balance work and family.

Levy: Getting back to the process of how a television episode plays out in post, the director comes into the editing room for a relatively short time. Contractually they have just four days to do their cut. Compared to features, the director just passes through. I’ll often have certain things in there because I know it’s the style of the show, or, having worked with the producers before, I know this is the kind of performance or the kind of shot they’re going to want. But it’s my responsibility to deliver that director’s cut. Sometimes directors want to experiment. Sometimes that’s welcomed, oftentimes it’s not, and the producers just go back to what they know is tried and true. It’s important to be respectful of the director’s wishes — but, ultimately in television, that’s not the final word.

Salfas: In general, that’s the way we work, as well. But I have a different relationship on the shows that I direct, because I edit them as well.

Levy: I don’t edit the episodes that I direct. But because I work on the show, I’m able to stay more involved than a visiting director would. Usually, when we finish the director’s cut, it’s presented at a small screening. The people who attend that screening are Steven Bochco, the writers, the producers — a group of maybe seven to ten people.

Salfas: That’s a very sane system. We don’t really do it that formally. We make tapes and distribute them.

“When I’m not directing, I always think, ‘Oh, I really wish I were directing.’ When I’m directing, I feel like, ‘Why am I doing this? This is crazy.'” – Stan Salfas

Levy: Steven likes to screen with a group of people. He respects the value of an audience response, even if it’s a small audience, as opposed to one person sitting alone in a room. No matter what you do, everyone is thinking about what their role in it was. So the writers will be thinking about it from a story point of view, and the directors will be looking at the directing and the editors are looking at all the things that we did right or did wrong. But if you’re together in a room, some of that goes away and you focus on the big picture — are we telling a good story? At some point, the director is congratulated — or not — and the discussion begins. How do we improve the show? That’s when the writers roll up their sleeves. In some cases, major restructuring has to be done, or confusing elements must be made clearer. Occasionally, a new scene will be added and shot to clarify something. And, in some cases, it’s just a question of refining or getting the show down to time.

Salfas: Basically, that’s what happens with us, too. We distribute tapes of the director’s cut to the producers, and they take the cuts from there. Sometimes the shows will be very close to what they had anticipated, and more often they’re not. And then there’s a fair amount of work that we end up having to do.

Levy: What are some of the problems that you guys encounter? Is it performance? Is it story elements that didn’t translate from the page? Is it time? Are they way over and have to figure out how to take out thirteen minutes?

Salfas: It’s all those things. Length is usually the first thing that’s a problem. You have a fixed length for the show, and that places all kinds of restrictions on your story.

Levy: Artists love what they do, and there are many things that all of us — directors, editors, writers, etc. — fall in love with. But someone who’s as experienced as Steven knows that you can’t fall in love, and that you have to be willing to excise things that are wonderful to make a story play better. You have to be very self-critical and very confident at the same time. Often, there are an abundance of riches, and you have to be willing to part with something — to have confidence that the finished product is going to be strong and stand on its own. You can’t cry over things that you had to leave out. That really continues to impress me about the producers I work with —the ability to be self-critical and the willingness to part with wonderful things.

“Even if you’re directing for somebody else, it’s still a skill, we’re refining our ability to interpret material in a particular way.” – Farrel Levy

Salfas: On a show like Felicity, the story is a very complex problem. On a NYPD Blue or Homicide or Law & Order, it’s easier to have an event-based story. On Law & Order you’re going to have a different crime each week, and a different solution to the crime. But Felicity is completely character-based. These are people who are in college, who are not in particularly dire circumstances. Yet they are going through a very complex time in their lives. Their world is in some ways quite small, and to create stories that have resonance and vitality is not a simple thing. A number of the people who work on Felicity came to see the pilot for Alias, an ABC show that I edited, and they said, “Oh, my God, why can’t we work on this show?” Every week, the main character runs off to another country to work on a new top-secret plot. But on Felicity, it’s not that easy. We work very hard on story problems in post-production. Until this year, J.J. Abrams primarily ran the writers’ room, and Matt Reeves worked in post-production with me and the other editors. And Matt is great in the cutting room. He loves the process of editing, and he believes very strongly in the power of editing to make drama work.

Levy: Ultimately, it always falls on post, whether it’s TV or features. In the end, we’re the ones who have to solve the problems.

Salfas: In almost every movie I’ve worked on, we have gone back and re-shot the ending. But on my show, you cannot go back and say, “Guess what? We didn’t get this.” There are no other resources. Nothing will humble you more as an editor than directing one of these shows. You will never again criticize a director for not having given you what you needed. It is humanly impossible to do what you need to do in eight days.

Levy: When I finally got the chance to direct, I knew how to tell the story visually, because of the time I had spent in the cutting room. I knew how the story got told in the style of our show. As an editor, I was so used to looking at dailies that I could say, “Okay, I know I have this performance. I can move on.” In fact, I’ve been told that when editors get a chance to direct, one of the strengths they bring is a decisiveness about performance and about which shots they need. I think that if someone’s starting out as a director, one of the things that would really help them is looking at dailies. Seeing something on that screen over and over from the point of view of the camera is a very different gestalt than being on a set in three-dimensional space. That constant reviewing of dailies and putting dailies together really helps when you’re the one in the director’s chair. It helps you to know when you have all the pieces you need.

“Length is usually the first thing that’s a problem. You have a fixed length for the show, and that places all kinds of restrictions on your story.” – Stan Salfas

Salfas: With video assist, in a way, you’re doing what you do when you’re editing. You have those little monitors, and you’re watching and trying to respond to what’s going on, just as you do in your editing room. If you really are doing your work as an editor, you’re staying open and sensitive to your material and letting it affect you, and letting that dictate your choices. It’s a little harder, because there are so many more things going on around you. But when you’re shooting, when the camera’s rolling and you’re watching the shot, if you shut down everything around you and develop this relationship between you and that little monitor, you can, in a way, recreate what you go through in the editing room. And, you have a great advantage, because you are used to doing it. If you’ve been successfully employed for a length of time, people have been paying you to sit in a room in front of a screen and absorb what you’re seeing and manipulate it as a result of how you’ve responded.

Levy: How do you feel about directing vs. editing? Would you rather just be directing? For myself, I like doing both. I really like the cutting room, but I like creating the material that comes into the editing room, too.

Salfas: I can’t really answer the question. I’m completely confused by it, because I find television directing is unlike anything else I’ve ever done. I’ve directed other things — a lot of theater, three or four of my own films — and I always associate that with directing. When you’re working on episodic television, you’re shooting seven or eight pages a day. Everyone thinks Felicity has a lot of money. In fact, we are a very low-budget show — budgeted lower than most other WB shows. So, we rarely have any overtime. We don’t go out on location very often; almost everything is done on our stages. And there is so much pressure on you as a director to deliver those seven or eight pages of material and to have it basically coherent. In a way, you’re just trying to avert disaster. When you’re making a TV show, you are directing for the writers and creators of the show. They have a very clear idea of what they want. They may have communicated it to you well or not. It doesn’t matter. If you don’t give them what they expect, then you’re not really fulfilling your job as a director. Normally a director has a vision of his or her material and then he attempts to execute it, to complete it. But, when you’re working on a television show, the writer has the vision, and your job is to realize it. I find that to be hair-raising. It’s a wild ride. When I’m not directing, I always think, “Oh, I really wish I were directing.” When I’m directing, I feel like, “Why am I doing this? This is crazy.” So, I don’t know how to answer the question.

Levy: But on the other hand, even if you’re directing for somebody else, it’s still a skill, and if the material is decent — which yours is, which mine is — we’re refining our ability to interpret material in a particular way. And then, if you have the opportunity to execute your own vision, you’ve already had the chance to work with actors, interpret a script, design shots, manage a large group of people under a time pressure, etc.

“When I finally got the chance to direct, I knew how to tell the story visually, because of the time I had spent in the cutting room. when editors get a chance to direct, one of the strengths they bring is a decisiveness about performance and about which shots they need.” – Farrel Levy 

Salfas: Episodic directing does not get much respect in the world of directors. And I never had the highest respect for it until I started trying to do it. Then I realized how incredibly impossible it was to do. And no matter what the show is, every director will bring a different sensibility. I can show you five different episodes of Felicity, and you or almost any person could say, “This was directed by that person and this was not directed by that person.” There’s definitely something a director imparts to material. I think a lot of it is unconscious. Their personality and sensibilities and instincts come out in the material, whether they intend it or not.

Levy: The aim in our show is to have the episodes be stylistically consistent. Certainly, the directors bring things to them, but the episodes should seem in a sense, “directorless.” They really need to seem like one continuum.

Salfas: On our show, too, we want to achieve a continuum. We’re trying to tell the story from the main character’s point of view, so we’re not as interested in having some point of view from outside the show.

Levy: One thing that’s very exciting to me is the relative flexibility that television has to accommodate timely story-telling. After the World Trade Center attack, many shows, including NYPD Blue, were able to write scenes and whole shows to reflect this new reality. In the TV world, where the writer has so much control, and productions are already geared up to shoot 13 to 22 scripts that will be written over many months, it is much easier than in the feature world to keep stories current. I’m amazed every year that the stories continue to be fresh, that the writers are able to keep the storytelling interesting. Every feature you work on creates a different world with different characters, locations and conflicts. But I have stayed in the same world for going on nine years now, and the quality of the work has been high.

Salfas: This year I did Alias, which could not be more different from Felicity. Our nickname for it is “La Femme Felicity,” and it’s a kick-ass, high-energy drama with a woman lead, instead of a man. It’s 70 minutes long, designed to be shown without any commercials. Everyone who knew me said, “You’re going to do Alias? I thought you only cut these sensitive, emotional things.” I’ve been on this show for four years, and the only other thing I did during that time was Gideon’s Crossing. Before that, I prided myself on doing a range of things. But at this point in my life, I don’t mind being identified with this kind of work because frankly, I value it very highly.

“on my show [Felicity], you cannot go back and say, “Guess what? We didn’t get this.” There are no other resources. Nothing will humble you more as an editor than directing one of these shows. You will never again criticize a director for not having given you what you needed.” – Stan Salfas

Levy: That’s a concern that I do have, because NYPD Blue has such a specific style. People say, “Can you do anything besides NYPD Blue?” I have worked on other shows, as well. I worked on Primal Fear and I did the Brooklyn South pilot, both of which were very different, and I’ve worked on movies of the week and features, as well. I’ve chosen to stay here, and I do worry about being pigeonholed. On the other hand, the experience of working on this show has been so satisfying overall. I’ve had the opportunity to work with top people. I’ve learned and gained an immense amount. I still enjoy what I do. At some point, when I move on, someone will understand that, yes, good editing and good storytelling is really what it’s about. Happily, working on a TV show for me has meant not having to go away on location, being able to have a family life. I’ve had the chance to be an active parent.

Salfas: That’s a big plus. I value my family life very, very much.

Levy: Having a summer vacation, which I never had before. Knowing that I have something to go back to in the fall has been such a gift because so often, a freelancer is not sure what the next thing’s going to be. You’re not sure how much time you’ll have off. I’ve been very fortunate to have a real pattern for my life for a while. I guess I could say that I’ve had a chance to have my cake and eat it, too, because I’ve been able to focus on my family and I’ve also had very rewarding, creative experiences as an editor on the show.

Salfas: But in all fairness, we’re not necessarily talking about the norm. You’re working with one of the great creators of television, and I’m working with someone whose highest values have to do with editing. A lot of executive producers are not interested in editing. They’re primarily interested in their writing, and they’re focused on letting the editing and the directing fulfill their writing. On my show, because of the personalities and the nature of the creators, we’re very focused on all the expressive elements, whether it’s the writing, the directing, the editing, cinematography, the acting. There’s a fundamental understanding that potent drama demands excellence in each of these areas. And there’s an expectation that television can aspire to and achieve a sense of truth about human behavior.