Her Editing Secret: It’s All About The Characters

Cannes Film Festival

AMC Television


She used to work with gritty city cops, now she’s spending her time with lusty teenage vampires. 

Lynne Willingham has been the editor for shows as diverse as “The X-Files” and “Without a Trace.”   411 Publishing recently caught up with Willingham to discuss her approach to editing and what it was like to spend two years working on the critically acclaimed drama "Breaking Bad," work that provided her with two Eddie and two Emmy Awards.

411:  In a show like “Breaking Bad,” what were the main things you were looking for in the footage when you began the editing process?

LW: On a show like “Breaking Bad” you’re always going for performance.  “Breaking Bad” is a character study and the people are the most important.  You blend the best performances from everybody and the fabulous look of the show; the camera work by Mike Slovis and his group, and the wonderful stuff that the art department is doing.  There’s a real singular vision on “Breaking Bad” and it starts with Vince Gilligan and his whole idea about making the show look like a small movie and then taking the finest actors he could find and putting it all together.  It sometimes makes it very easy, to be honest.


411:  Did you have a pass at the show’s editing on your own prior to getting notes or comments?

LW:  Absolutely every piece of film that’s ever cut starts with the editor.  You might get some notes from the director, especially if you are in a pilot, but a lot of times, they will trust you to find the best performances.  Directors have ways of using transitions and camera moves that you pay attention to and incorporate these with the style.  If you are on a continuing series you put together what you feel is the way the show should look.  We call that the first cut.  There are people that call it a rough cut or an assembly, but at this point you are delivering a first cut to the director with pretty much an Avid mix: you’ve got music and visual effects sometimes, so it’s far more than what a rough cut use to be when we were cutting on film.  That first vision of the show is usually long but it’s all the decisions of the editor.  Then it starts becoming more collaborative.  I’d get film over the eight days they were shooting plus two or three more days to finish it.  Then I’d give it to the director and we’d work on it for three or four days.  Then we’d take that to the producers, and then it goes to the network.  So, it starts with the editor but it goes through a lot of people to become a collaborative piece of work that you see on television. 


411:  “Breaking Bad” incorporates a lot of long shots where the location is fully utilized.  What’s your process as an editor of dealing with blending location and characters, and finding the right timing of how long to stay with shots?

LW:  Usually, you use it to define or establish the scene, and then you’ll open up.  “Breaking Bad’s” style really uses that wide open space, that feeling of aloneness.  I think in many ways “Breaking Bad” broke the mold open for prime time television.  The chances of letting a long shot or a wide shot play with dialogue are usually very slim.  You might use it to establish something but very fast.  You might be in a conversation for two to three couplets of lines, then there’s a time when you really need to be in closer.  In “Breaking Bad,” Vince really wanted that openness; it throws you off your expectations and keeps you unbalanced.  At first when we started doing the pilot I tended to lean towards the traditional format.  I would use the big, beautiful wide shots because you have to pay homage to that piece of film, and I tended to come in to dialogue closer than Vince wanted.  So we ended up opening up the show quite a bit, and it set the style for the whole series.


411:   What were the ways you were able to add your artistic mark to the craft of editing through the course of the time you worked on the show?

LW:  The thing about editing is you don’t want to look like you are editing the show.  It’s called the invisible art for a reason.  If you notice what we are doing then we’re in the way.  I think I can only address where my strengths are, which are addressing the characters, my timing is pretty good, and as editors we have to be very in tune with that story, because as editors we have to be the 3rd part of that story before getting it on the air.  The writer writes it, the director directs it, and those are often two slightly different versions.  What I’ve been able to, in my history of editing, is marry what the director wants and what the writer wants, and help them achieve their vision without compromising either one.  That’s kind of a diplomatic mission.  I can appreciate that the writer and the director both had something in mind but the bottom line is that the film is there and the film can only do what the film will do.  Thankfully film can work in many different ways.  I can’t say that I have a style that’s imprinted on that show that somebody would go ‘Oh yeah, that’s a style that she imprinted on that show.’  It’s not like “24” where the editing, in my opinion, absolutely set the style.  In a show like “Breaking Bad,” it’s just beautiful story telling. 


411: At what point do you get to look at the episode and see where the story is going?  Do you get the script well in advance of what’s going to be shot?

LW:  Yes, you look at either a first draft, or they’ve got this thing that’s kind of an outline concept, and then they have a shooting draft.  So, I’ve read the script before they start shooting.  When each scene comes in, I’ll go back and look at the page and look at the script supervisor’s notes because there might have been some things they had to rethink: bits of dialogue or a location.  The only time it really becomes an issue for me is if there is a shot that I think may be missing or a shot that may have changed.  Luckily the writers and Vince were right downstairs so I could ask if something was changed for a reason, or if there was more film coming.


411:  Everyone working on the show is very concerned about the look and aesthetic of each episode. If you found that something was missing, was the crew open to getting the missing element?

LW:  Oh yes, they’ll do pick-ups.  A lot of times it’s something as simple as an insert.  We have gone back occasionally and redone certain parts of scenes because it wasn’t exactly what he wanted and/or there was possibly a problem with the location or the look of it or we just needed a little more.  You want to catch those things as you’re going along before production shuts down so it’s not so expensive to reshoot.


411:  I know the color values are modified through the course of each episode in addition to each season.  Does playing with light and shadow in a scene add to your editing experience?

LW:  Yes, that is fun!  Every project brings you such different nuances; you’re kind of discovering it as you go along.  I don’t consciously think of shadow playing on a character and bringing the actor forward, revealing  him from the darkness, but it’s there.  It’s definitely a fun thing, and it’s really brave of a show to be able to keep a character in darkness. 


411:  When you were first approached with ”Breaking Bad,” were you initially excited about these types of characters?  What inspired you to get involved?

LW:  I had worked with Vince on the “X-Files.”  I was working on “Without a Trace” and I got a phone call from Vince’s office saying that he had a pilot and was I interested?  It’s the sort of thing where I said anything that Vince is doing I want to be involved with, because he’s the brightest writer out there and he’s just so much fun to work with.  I hadn’t read the script, I just went on the fact that I knew it would be good. And then they sent me the script and I called him back and I said please tell me that no one else is up for this job because I really wanted it and he said no, you’re it! 


411:  How often does Vince pop in and sit with you during an edit session?

LW:  He’s pretty much on that couch from the time we start producer’s cuts to the end.  He is a hands on guy, and it’s made it very difficult for him because he’s also the head guy in the writer’s room.  This year, he asked if he could finish production before he started the editing room, and they agreed.  He finished his writing and his production and now he’s in the editing room non-stop I believe until the end of April.  But, he leaves everyone alone until it’s his turn. 


411:  Now that season three is in gear you are no longer editing “Breaking Bad.”  What have you moved on to?

LW:  There was a scheduling conflict, so now I’m on “True Blood” which is also an incredible show.  The remaining “Breaking Bad” editorial staff is consistent.  I’ve been really blessed with “Breaking Bad.”  It was one of the most joyous events of my career, working on that show.  If there was a way of working it so I could go back, I’d be delighted to.