I was fortunate enough this year to have been given the opportunity to write for CinemaEditor magazine. One of the articles I chose to do was an interview of the editing team behind this summer’s hot new legal drama Suits. I know what you’re thinking and you are correct: This is the show that the star of our film The Waterhole, Patrick J Adams, just received a SAG Award nomination for.
In honor of that nomination I give you the following article, which originally appeared in CinemaEditor Magazine.
By Nathan Cole
Over the past few years the USA Network has been building a strong line-up of original programming making it a reliable destination for television viewers seeking unique stories. Suits, which made its debut on the network last June, seems the perfect fit, mixing in comfortably with the other successes of the channel such as Burn Notice, White Collar, and In Plain Sight.
At first glance the show might seem like just another legal drama. Suits centers around Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), the picture-perfect New York City attorney, whose very appearance epitomizes the stereotype of the show’s title. Specter seemingly leads perfect TV-lawyer life as the best “closer” in the city with a reputation for breaking the rules. When Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams) inadvertently crashes a job interview Specter is half-heartedly conducting it provides him with a unique opportunity. Ross it turns out is an aimless genius with a photographic memory. Coincidentally, he has acquired an unprecedented amount of legal knowledge as the result of winning a bet that he couldn’t pass the bar exam. Specter rolls the dice and offers Ross the job. And thus the show begins. Ross gets a fast track to his dream career; one a bad decision took away from him years earlier, and Specter gets a fresh perspective from someone in need of a mentor. They both get the headache of trying to keep Ross’s background a secret.
At its heart, Suits is less a legal procedural show than it is a character study, one that develops slowly over each episode. This makes sense, as USA Network’s slogan is “Characters Welcome,” and there is no reason to question its accuracy after discussing Suits with two of the show’s current editors: David Bertman and Angela Catanzaro. When asked to describe the show, each editor was separately impressed with how it takes its time letting the viewer get to know the characters. It deftly mixes drama with humor while not forgetting that at its core it is a show about people. Although Catanzaro confesses that she doesn’t really watch much TV, she says she was immediately impressed with the pilot, explaining, “Television convention is not really a part of this show and it has an expansive feel… we are not confined to a courtroom, there’s personal drama too. We are not going case to case, we follow characters.” When asked about the show Bertman’s response was nearly identical, adding that, “This is a show that I would watch even if I wasn’t working on the project.”
It’s fitting then that these two editors each come from unique backgrounds, bringing different approaches and techniques all with the same goal: serve the story. Bertman found himself in the world of editing almost by chance. He was rushing to finish his thesis film at USC and having trouble getting on the editing decks. It was at this time that Avid was working to convert new users by offering free training classes and Bertman figured it was a perfect way to get some more time to cut his film together. While training he met an editor that offered him a job to assist on a TV movie, and figuring he had nothing to lose he took the job. His journey took an awkward turn for the better when his boss decided to take a bluntly honest approach with the director. The next thing Bertman knew he was the lead editor. Fortune stayed with him when the director was given an executive position at a studio and asked Bertman to apply for a staff job. At this point he was overcome by self-doubt, concerned that he lacked the experience and so he never followed up on the offer. If there was any regret it was short-lived, because he was able to continue honing his craft and the decision certainly had no long-term effect on his career. Soon he would be working on shows like The Gilmore Girls and the Judd Apatow-created Undeclared.
Catanzaro studied film at UCLA and after graduating took a job in the marketing department of a sound house. Although she had her sights on the world of sound for a career, she thought it might be a good idea to take a few Avid classes. The classes led to various non-union jobs as an assistant editor, which she loved, so when offered a lead editor position while working on The Shield, she was conflicted. She was terrified but knew she could not pass up such a great opportunity. She admits that whenever she begins a new job she has self-doubt, but once she is in the editing suite that all disappears. She says she loves the “creative fury” of her job and finds the work completely absorbing.
On a new show like Suits, there is a learning curve that everyone on the team must contend with. The main challenge is coming up with new and fresh transitions, music, and an overall feel that will help give the show a signature style. This also presents a tremendous opportunity. As Catanzaro explains, “It can be very exciting since the show is in its infancy and the editorial team is making the show what it is going to be, how it’s going to sound, and how it’s going to look, but it is also challenging because we don’t know what we are looking for and there is a lot of trial and error.”
There are also the creative challenges of trying to make sure the look of the show is consistent while not revealing that they are not actually filming on the streets of New York, but in Toronto. Which can be difficult given production values that aspire to make the show feel bigger than a typical television show. The team also has to try and get the best cuts of actors still trying to define their characters while not knowing when certain episodes might air and how that order might impact the flow of the whole season.
Bertman is amazed at the volume of temporary visual effects that are being added during the edit and kept because they work so well. He notes that there is satisfaction in the ability to perform these tasks well enough that they make it into the final version of the show, but adds that, “you end up having more to do in a shorter amount of time.”
Indeed, addressing the aspects of how the show will look and feel can be consuming, but it would be less of an issue if it wasn’t for the sheer amount of footage the team is receiving every day. Suits is filmed in Toronto but the post-production is housed in West Los Angeles, with the mixing being finished in Universal City. The show is shot on the RED camera allowing for the scenes to be uploaded quickly so that the team has the dailies the next morning.
This straightforward workflow of shooting on digital and having the files ready practically immediately means each day greets them with hours of new clips. Each editor agrees that the volume of scenes they have on a daily basis shapes the way they work. Catanzaro mentioned that it would be ideal if they had more time together as a team to discuss aspects of the show. They do occasionally bounce ideas off one another, but there simply is not enough time for significant collaboration.
Yet, each in their own way is able to embrace the workload and get the best scenes out of the vast material they have to work with. Bertman prefers to prepare several different clips for each take by creating bite-sized versions of every reading and not trying to focus on every full take. This may take a little longer but it gives him the confidence that he has all the high quality clips at his fingertips thus saving him the time of having to go back and search for anything he might have missed. He jokes that he also likes to have a coffee machine in the room because he can get so busy that brewing up a fresh pot can provide a much needed and quick distraction.
Catanzaro, on the other hand, will begin randomly pulling out takes from the dailies that feel right regardless of where in the scene it is, and if she has a section that is working really well she will just dive into it immediately. Despite the vast amounts of notes she receives from the director, producers, actors, and writer she will always cut the very best version of the scene based on what she feels will better serve the final product. Then she will prepare an alternative take to address any special requests from the set. Helping her make her creative choices is the vast amount of music provided by the music supervisor, which she says gives her a great ability to affect the tone of the scenes, a freedom she very much appreciates.
The team’s job has one other asset in helping to make their Suits experience a positive one. Each editor could not speak highly enough about the creative team in Toronto. Writer/Producer Aaron Korsh (whom Bertman worked with on The Deep End), producers Jonathan Starch, David Bartis, Doug Liman (yes, that Doug Liman), Sean Jablonski, Jon Cowan and Gene Klein; directors Kevin Bray, Terry McDonough, Dennie Gordon, Tim Matheson and John Scott; and script supervisor Daniella Saioni each provided guidance as to how the show should come together while giving each member of the team the freedom to follow their own instinct. They are particularly grateful to their assistant editors, Albert Coleman, Tom Demauri, and Danielle Wang, who are crucial in getting that immense workload organized.
Suits has the potential to become a break-out hit. The premiere received strong ratings and it has a charismatic cast with the right combination of charm, wit and heart. Regardless, if the success of the show rested on the shoulders of this team of editors alone, there would be no reason it could fail. Both bring a dedication and sense of craft along with a combined experience spanning dozens of great television series. They are indeed in their element working in the fast-paced world of television. Maybe Bertman puts it best, “Television never gets boring, with film it is hard to trust your judgment, in television you have to move on.”