BWW Interview: Justin Krohn Talks MR. ROBOT and Post-Production for Television
Justin Krohn has built up an impressive resume over his career in the film industry. Over the years he has edited shows such as MR. ROBOT, TWIN PEAKS, AMERICAN HORROR STORY, BLOODLINE, and is currently working on Sam Esmail's new show HOMECOMING. He took the time to speak with me about how he got into editing, the editing process of USA Network's MR. ROBOT, and the ins-and-outs of being a film editor.
How did you get into film, and more specifically, into editing?
So I grew up in Minneapolis, MN, & had always been into watching movies from a young age, but it wasn't something I took seriously about pursuing until late in high school. Right before my senior year, I'd grown really bored with high school so I ended up taking all college courses my final year & during that time I took several introductory film courses. They were just general film history classes, but I began to think & learn about what a director does, as opposed to just thinking, "Oh, this movie is cool," & this led to me deciding to go to film school & see if it was something I wanted to pursue.
Then I went to Columbia College in Chicago, because a really cool thing about Columbia is they made you get your hands on equipment right away. At that time there weren't as many film schools as there are now & the digital revolution hadn't fully taken off, so for the first few years we were still shooting & editing on film. For me, I just wanted to see if I actually liked the actual process & work of making movies. So, in that first year, we had to shoot and edit our own films and I quickly learned I really liked the process of it, instead of just actually watching movies. It's pretty common to see a lot of people in film school drop out very quickly, because the actual process and hard work is a lot different than just sitting & watching movies.
Initially, I focused on directing and editing, but I think the thing I took to more about editing, is you are just dealing with the actual storytelling elements a lot more. With directing & being on set, so often you're dealing more with logistics & scheduling & managing people & a host of other things, where I just wanted to deal with the actual storytelling. With editing, it encapsulates everything that's great about making movies; you're dealing with sculpting performances, picking music, & structuring the story. Also, I'm naturally a bit more of an introvert, so being able to sit in a dark room and not have to deal with a lot of people has always been great for me.
Is there a certain genre or type of content you like to edit the most?
Well, I've been able to do a little bit of everything-I've done horror, comedy, & drama, and each of them is kind of their own thing & I've enjoyed each of them equally. Right now, creatively, I'm most interested in doing material that's a bit darker, but that could change. Certainly the projects I pick are based on where my interests are; for example, right before I first worked on AMERICAN HORROR STORY, I remember telling my agent, "I really want to try horror" because it was something I had really been into it as a kid & hadn't done up to that point in my career. And that was a fantastic experience, & I got to work with a bunch of insanely talented people. But then, after a couple of years on the show, I was ready to move on & try something different, so it always just depends creatively where I'm at.
One of the fun things about doing horror, though, or even comedy, is that you immediately see a reaction from people. Often I'll sit and show my assistant editor or other people around the editing room cuts while we're working to get their reactions. And you almost always see an immediate visceral reaction & it's very gratifying to see that.
You spend so much time alone working on the footage, that seeing people react in real time in front of you is a lot of fun & a nice pay off. Ultimately, I'm always just trying to keep myself interested and to tell a story I feel personally invested in.
I'd loved the first two seasons, & was fascinated that starting with the second season, the creator of the show, Sam Esmail, was directing all of the episodes. Before I'd even met with them or thought of working on the show, I'd worked on TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN & it had been great to just have one person, in that case David Lynch, directing everything & there being one creative vision behind the show, much like how feature films work. Too often in TV, you're dealing with different directors coming in who can have very different visions of the show than the producers/writers who are in charge & there's that inevitable clash of ideas where, as an editor, you're stuck trying to get to a happy middle where everyone's happy. But with having just one voice, you get to really just explore one person's vision behind the show & really delve into the material quite a bit deeper than you usually have the opportunity too.
So, with ROBOT, I had several friends working on the show and had mentioned to them, "If there's ever a chance to work on the show, please let me know," & luckily a few editors weren't returning for the 3rd season so I got a chance to meet with them & work on the show.
One of the great things about working on the show is that Sam really knows what he wants & what the world is, but he's very open to collaboration and likes people bringing their own ideas to the show. He's very exciting to work with because he definitely does have a very specific vision & wants to tell a great story. Also, from watching the show, I've always been drawn to the characters [in MR. ROBOT] & felt very emotionally invested in everyone's journey when I was making it. That just makes you want to tell the best story and bring the best ideas you can to it. We really just had a great group of people-one of the best crews I've ever worked with.
How much of a say do you get in the creative decision-making of that show? Is it clearly lined out for how it should be edited or do you get to do a lot of experimenting?
Well, it certainly varies quite differently from a lot of other shows I've done, but I would say with ROBOT there's a fairly large amount of creative freedom. I'll use a couple different examples: in episode 6 of season 3 that I cut [eps3.5_kill-pr0cess.inc], there was quite a bit of intercutting & much of it hadn't been scripted. When I first presented the episode to Sam, we watched it as scripted & it didn't really work - the tension wasn't there & there was none of the momentum that we needed for the big reveal at the end of episode. So, at the end of that first viewing, Sam & I started to talk about intercutting the episode, & we pitched a few ideas back & forth, but then he said, "Why don't I just leave for a bit, you can work on it." So he left me alone for a bit & I just started to intercut & redo the episode based on our initial ideas, but then just taking ideas I had further or following different discoveries about what worked best together. Occasionally I'd call him in to look at a few things here or there, but mostly he left me alone until I felt comfortable going through the whole episode again with him. That's a fairly unique thing to be allowed to do, but it definitely made me push myself harder to make sure I was giving Sam the best out of the material I could. Sam's a great collaborator in that he'll leave you alone to work because he trusts you to do the best you can. Then once we started going through the episode there were ideas he liked of mine, others he didn't, & we go through the push-pull of whipping the episode into shape.
Another great thing about the show, & Sam specifically, is the ability to bring in a lot of musical ideas to the editing room. Sam definitely has a sense of what he wants but he's really great about letting people bring their own ideas they want to try out. I know for this episode I put in a song from the REPO MAN soundtrack that I'd always loved into the cut without telling him about it. We watched the episode & he loved it. The same thing happened in episode 8 (eps3.7_dont-delete-me.ko). In one of the last scenes of the episode I placed a song from the BILL AND TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE soundtrack that I thought my be right for the scene where Angela & Elliot are talking through the door. Never talked to him about it, I just felt like the end of the episode needed a breath of fresh air & an emotionally rewarding moment for what had been an episode that had dealt with Elliot's depression. And, in fact, I'd initially only played it through that scene, but when Sam watched the cut for the first time he loved the use of the song so much he told me to play it through the end of the episode.
With the music we're always trying to find things that aren't obvious or haven't been used before. So, if Sam likes something, he'll leave you alone and certainly if he hates something he will really tell you. Ultimately, it's Sam's show so I'm just happy to be able tell the story he wants. When I can inject my own ideas into the mix, it's fantastic, but I'm there to serve his vision.
The intercutting was one of my favorite parts of this season.
Yeah, we did that a lot in the finale as well, which I got to help cut with my friend & fellow editor John Petaja. Probably the biggest part of that episode where we did the intercutting was in sequence in the barn & the Angela/Price scene. Those had initially been their own separate scenes in the script & in our first cut. But when we all watched the first cut of the episode together we were close to around 90 minutes, I think, & Sam felt that those scenes just weren't working on their own. At this point in the season I'd gotten to know Sam pretty well, so he asked me, "Do you think intercutting would work?" & my reply was, "I think so, let me try a few things." We didn't even talk about where or how to intercut it, he just said, "Okay cool, just go do it," and once again I just went away & did the intercut on what felt right. Then showed him my first pass when I was ready & from there we made some adjustments.
I read an article a while ago that said the first season of MR. ROBOT wasn't shot episodically, but was shot like a film. Is that how it was shot for season three as well?
Well, I don't know about season one, but since season 2, & since Sam has been directing all the episodes, we cross-board & shoot everything simultaneously. This is possible because Sam & his writers will write the whole season before they even start shooting. Occasionally there are adjustments made during production where perhaps a location won't be available, but that's really the only writing that goes on during production. What that means for the editing team, is we're typically getting scenes out of order & it just takes a little longer to put the episodes together as we wait for all the footage to come in. For example, all of the scenes that were at the barn in the finale (shutdown -r), & also in episode 3 (eps3.2_legacy.so), were shot very early on in production this year, but we were still waiting for the rest of the scenes for that episode for quite a bit. I'd worked like this on TWIN PEAKS also, and it just feels like one big movie at times. The only difficulty in this lies in keeping yourself grounded to what the story is within the individual episode your working on as it takes a while to see the whole. For example, in episode 2 (eps3.1_undo.gz), we had a big montage that opens the episode that I cut to an INXS song. There were so many bits & pieces for that sequence that it took a long time for everything to get shot, so it was hard to see how that was going to work for while until I got everything & was able to put it together. You're constantly thinking to yourself, "Wait, what's going on?" until you get everything. Once you do, though, it all makes sense. I'm also doing Sam's [Esmail] next show, HOMECOMING, which they're starting in March for Amazon and we're doing the same thing. It's all being cross-boarded because Sam is directing all of that as well.
How does the editing process for MR. ROBOT work? Is there a team of editors and you just split up the episodes or...
Very similar to how most hour-long dramas work, where different episodes are assigned to editors. We have three editors and every person gets the third episode in the rotation. So, John had episodes one, four, seven, and ten. I had two, six, and eight and Rosanne Tan, our other insanely talented editor this season had three, five, and nine. Then I also ended up cutting half of the finale because it was just so big and at that point we were getting a little too close to the air date. For comedies, & most half-hour shows, sometimes it's only two people cutting, but it depends on the show. I know for TWIN PEAKS-we shot that as one long movie & David [Lynch] didn't want to think about episodes at all. So we just took scenes as they came in and didn't even think about the episode breaks until late in that process. That was more like cutting a film that ended up turning into an 18-hour movie.
I've found that in school, sometimes editing student films, it's hard to get the director to see past their vision to see different or better ways of cutting a scene together. Do you have any tips on how to work with clients or directors?
That's a hard one, because you're always going to work with a wide variety of people, some who will be very collaborative & others who aren't. As you go through your career hopefully it gets better, because most people realize "Hey I don't really know everything" and they're a little bit more willing to give up control. But definitely when you're working with people new to the process you run into this a lot more. Really the only way, for me, to get through this is win their trust. This is a big part of the editing process that isn't talked about as much in school, & really the only way to learn it is to get out, start working with people, & learn how to work/interact with all types of people at different levels. In the editing room, & with cutting digitally, it's very easy to try lots of different approaches, so I'll usually just ask to try out an idea I have that may be different from the director or producers. Being able to keep & make multiple versions of scenes, means the only thing we're sacrificing is the time to do it. With the best collaborators, they're more than willing to try out different approaches & aren't threatened by opposing viewpoints. But it's definitely one of the tougher things to navigate in the room, when a director is dead set on an idea that maybe isn't working & won't let it go. Once again, one of the things I love about working with Sam & on MR. ROBOT, he was always very open to letting me try different approaches. But you're not always going to be right & sometimes your ideas aren't what's best for the show. So, knowing how far you can push your collaborators and when to back off is very important. And sometimes you're not always going to work with people you like & it's not always going to be a fun process, so what you want to do is to just find the best collaborators & people to work with.
Do you have a story of a time everything went wrong-an editing horror story?
Yes, definitely. Without going into specifics, very early on when I started editing I was fired from a project by a director whom I just didn't get along with & it was a very traumatic event for me. At the time it was a very psychologically damaging experience and really shook my confidence, because I thought I just wasn't a good enough editor. With a bit of time & experience, though, I can now look back & laugh at it all, because ultimately the director wasn't very good at communicating what he wanted & just took all his frustrations out on me. There were some performance issues that were BEYOND my control & now that I've worked with far more talented directors, I can confidently say it had nothing to do with my editing. But, a lot of the time, issues like this will arise that you just have no control over as an editor & something just won't work. And when you work with a good director, they'll work with you to solve the problem & collaborate to come up with the best solution. But, as in the experience I've mentioned, sometimes you'll work with someone who, quite frankly, will treat you like shit. So, ultimately, you've got to keep a level head & just try to do the best you can. Much of the frustration that gets vented by a director or producer when you're watching a cut has very little do with your work & you have to do your best not to internalize it & take it personally.
Sometimes, though, you will get yelled about it & you will get fired for it, because as the editor you're the easiest one to blame. And, truthfully, there's nothing wrong with that, because if you're working with collaborators where the first instinct is to blame & create such a hostile atmosphere, it's really not worth your time or energy to work with them.
A lot of my editor friends will say, "Well you're not a real editor until you get fired," which I think is pretty true. You have to experience what that is like & lose the fear of getting fired to feel a kind of mental liberation to just do your best work regardless of the external pressures anyone is putting on you. I can't stress enough, it's not worth your time, energy, and life to be miserable working with anyone. Certainly, you're going to have times even with people you like where you're frustrated, tired, & overworked, but you don't also need somebody sitting behind you yelling at you or treating you like garbage. Nobody deserves that. So, having gone thought that, it was a good learning experience & I used it to grow & develop as an editor. The horror stories don't have to end up as horror stories; they're just learning experiences.
Do you recommend getting comfortable with Adobe Premiere and Final Cut or is Avid Media Composer still the industry standard?
For all of the work I've done recently it's been on Avid, but certainly there is a chance it could change to Premiere. Final Cut isn't really used very much anymore. Once they stopped doing a lot of upgrades to the software they kind of died as a viable cutting platform for a lot of people. I know [David] Fincher cuts all of his movies & shows on Premiere. The biggest piece of advice I can give you in terms of the software is to just not get intimidated by any of it & to take your time to learn how to use it. Ultimately it's just a tool to telling the story, so the quicker you know the software the quicker you can just focus on the storytelling, & not the technology, to make the best film you can. I'm using Avid now, but if that changes to Premiere, so be it, it doesn't make that much of a difference to me. I just want to learn whatever platform well enough so I can forget about it & just be at my keyboard working away. Don't be intimidated by any of the technology, it's just a tool to tell a story.
What do you expect an assistant editor to know?
For me, first and foremost, they have to be very technical & very proficient. I was an assistant editor for a number of years, but now that I'm an editor I like to focus on the technical aspects only when I have to. Some of that is practical, as there is only so much you can do, but also, I don't want to have to micromanage my assistant & be looking over their shoulder to tell them how to do their job. Then from there, I also like them to have a good grasp of how to do a bit of sound design & music work. On MR. ROBOT, and actually a lot of shows I've done, we do an extensive amount of sound design and music work even before we hand the show off to our sound teams & composer, so I need them to be comfortable doing that work. Also, I want them to bring their own ideas and be willing to talk about edits and collaborate with me. They're not there to just load footage, I really consider them an integral part of my process. When I'm working, I'll have my AE come in to look at scenes I'm cutting & talk about it with me. If they have suggestions, I want to hear them. The AE I'm working with now, Chris Guiral, he's just fantastic. We talk about the story, the characters, & what's working or not in the cut. We'll also talk a lot about the music I put in, and with songs I'll easily bounce five or six ideas off of him before I even settle on what I want to use. So, an AE can & should be an integral part of the creative process. I really want them to come in with their own ideas. It'd be horrible if I'd show something to them and ask, "What do you think?" & they say "I don't know." I want them to have their own thoughts and ideas. One thing I do like them to be careful about, though, is when I'm getting an opinion from them, I want them to be a viewer & not try to tell me how they think a scene should be cut. I've had assistants in the past do this, & that's not what I'm looking for. What's valuable to me is getting their gut emotional reaction to material & if the story is making sense, that's the kind of collaboration I'm looking for. The best ones I've had-and Chris is definitely up there, maybe the best I've had-is that they're big collaborators & help me to see the bigger picture. Also, I like to encourage them to cut as well & will give them their own scenes to cut. With Chris, he'll bring me back a scene he's been working on & I'll show him the tricks and techniques I use. I think the best assistant editors are the ones who eventually go on and become editors in their own right.
Do you have any tips on how to make an editor's reel?
Well, I've never really used an editor's reel & don't think they really tell you that much about an editor's skills in the first place. Usually when you're meeting with people for work, they certainly want to see work you've done but I've always found it more useful to look at individual scenes & then talk to people who they've worked with so you can get a reference. When you're starting out, though, it's definitely a handy thing to have, but usually early in your career you don't necessarily have the best or flashiest looking work on there. I think you can go one of two routes: try to find the best things that you did and grab little excerpts of them, or try to cut together the best bit of things you've done.
An editor's reel isn't really going to tell anyone the most important question, though, which is, do they really want to sit in a room with you for twelve hours a day for weeks on end & are you going to be a good collaborator who's willing to experiment & try out different ideas. That's a quality that just won't come through on any editor's reel, & is far more important to me. So, use the reel to get you in the door but also when you're interviewing, you really also want to be positive and show you have an adventurous spirit. Knowing how to sell yourself when you get an interview is probably much more important than what is on your reel. Try to listen to them and see what they're looking for and see if your needs meet up. When you're starting out, you kind of need to take whatever job you can to get experience. But after you've done a few different shows, you should be just as much interviewing the people who are interviewing you. You should be thinking, "Are these people I want to spend time with?" You should know when to walk away and if the project's not right for you. There's nothing wrong with that, not everything out there is the right thing.
Do you have any advice for young filmmakers and/or editors trying to break into the industry?
I think you just need to get out there and know how to hustle. When I got out of school I didn't have anybody I really knew in the business, I just wanted to go make movies.
Initially, I just started taking any job I could to get experience. Not all of them were great-many of them were bad. But I just started doing it and took everything I could to get that experience. Also do a lot of research and see what's out there-what's in production, what's in development - and from that ask yourself, "Do I know somebody who I can get a meeting with or somebody who can introduce me to somebody who can?" It's a lot of that sort of hustle initially. I think, also, you just want to know what your interests are - I certainly wouldn't go try to do a sitcom because that's not the material I want to work on. So, just get out there, get experience, work really hard, and build up a great reputation for yourself, because inevitably you're going to work with people and how you get other work is somebody saying, "I worked with this person. They were fantastic, a really hard worker." You really want to leave the best impression, particularly early on. The biggest thing is just to stay positive and try to find work you want to do.
Example of intercutting in MR. ROBOT: Season 3, Episode 6: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7thf0fqxAMk
Justin Krohn's Website: http://www.justinkrohn.com
IMAGE Courtesy of USA Network