written by Ben Mehlman, Randi Altman's Post Perspective
Apple TV+’s Five Days at Memorial, based on Sheri Fink’s book of the same name, follows the true story of the 2,000 people who were stuck at New Orleans Memorial Hospital without power for five days during Hurricane Katrina. This tour de force was shepherded by Oscar winner John Ridley and Emmy winner Carlton Cuse, and it stars Vera Farmiga, Cherry Jones and Cornelius Smith Jr. The show explores the complicated and futile decisions that people faced during this harrowing nightmare.
I recently spoke with Luyen Vu, ACE, Colin Rich, MPEG, and JoAnne Yarrow, ACE, the series’ three editors, all ow whom cut on Avid Media Composer. We talked about the importance of balancing the needs of the narrative with the real-life events that took place, the moral gray area that the show embraces, using archival as well as freshly shot footage, and more.
How was it balancing the drama and the needs of the narrative with the real-life events that took place?
Colin Rich: To me, you could say it added an almost extra burden. There’s an added weight knowing that so many characters, especially someone like [patient] Emmett Everett, are portrayals of real people. Many of the doctors and nurses are still around. Katrina was only 17 years ago.
JoAnne Yarrow: The balance was something that found its way. John wanted to make sure using archival footage wasn’t in lieu of being able to shoot something or of a good visual effect. We used it in a lot of different ways. It’s not just the traditional way of using archival to set up an environment. It’s also a flash into a character’s worst nightmare about what could be happening out there in the city. It’s used as an emotional element to help heighten the mental state of our characters. As we put in the archival footage, people liked and wanted it to stay. So the balance found its way organically as we went.
Luyen “Lu” Vu: To jump onto what JoAnne said, the footage is obviously of real people, so that puts a real face to this tragedy and what so many had to deal with in the aftermath of the storm.
As we were figuring out the balance of archival footage [versus freshly shot], there were points where we almost went too hard, and it started desensitizing us. I think one of the most interesting things Carlton told me was that when he met with actors Cherry Jones and Vera Farmiga, they both said — without having talked to each other before — that they were going to be fierce advocates for their characters. It’s really important to tell this story with a balanced and unskewed perspective. We know those characters were trying, and you can see it in the writing and acting. They tried to do what they could, and we didn’t pass judgment on what was happening. We tried to be like an accountant of the events as opposed to giving a specific perspective of the events.
Colin worked with John on the LA riots doc Let it Fall, but you all worked together on his American Crime. Did that help create a shorthand and creative synergy on this show?
Yarrow: It’s very open. I compare us to siblings. We don’t always agree, and we can get into it, but we approach it all with love, openness and transparency. I can show my cut to them and take their notes and criticism knowing it’ll make my work stronger. That’s a special and unique position to be in… to have that kind of trust among your colleagues.
Because we have all worked with John before, we had a good idea of what he was going to go for, and we all had a shorthand. That made it really enjoyable too. One of my favorite things from this whole process was having this deep creative connection with Colin and Lu, being able to trust and rely on them.
Vu: With the type of work we did on both American Crime and Memorial, we were trying to push against the boundaries of the language of cinema. When you’re doing that, it’s easy to get lost in the woods without somebody to consult. But since we’ve all been working together for so long, we had that shorthand and could talk things through. You need people you trust to have honest and deep discussions with.
Yarrow: And to vent with and be like, “This is so heavy.”
Vu: Yeah, I feel like a lot of our Zooms were the equivalent of going on walks because we couldn’t deal with the footage.
On to a practical question: What was your post setup like? What did you edit on, and how much was remote versus in person?
Yarrow: We were working remote and worked on an Amulet. It was seamless. I think working from home was another aspect that made this pretty intense. The entire show was remote, and with all the elements going on, you would think it would have been really challenging. But because of our good relationship and our regular Zooms, it wasn’t bad. And the Amulet was great for us three.
Vu: Yeah, Amulet’s parent company is Teradici. I’d forget that I didn’t have the Avid in the room with me. We were doing some very specific cuts and felt like other systems weren’t giving us the precision we needed. And working remotely with everybody was a challenge, of course, but I think we were all able to manage it fairly well.
Rich: At the start of the project, we did consider moving to in-person at some point, but because things were so smooth working remotely, it just never became a necessity. The remote was extended beyond just the edits, especially for Lu and me, who were on the project for a while. ADR, scoring sessions, VFX reviews… we were attending many of them, and they were all remote.
Vu: The thing about this project is they shot in Toronto and then New Orleans, and obviously our showrunners, Carlton and John, were at those locations. So ADR was sometimes in Toronto, sometimes in LA or New York, and we had VFX companies in Europe doing work for us. So it likely would have ended up like this anyway.
How was the work broken down on episodes that credited more than one editor?
Vu: We made decisions very early on about who would be in charge of what, but as projects like this go, we were moving things here and there, especially with the documentary footage. I’d say we tried to pull from each other’s footage sometimes too. Since the collaboration is easy enough, it was an easy slide back and forth, and we tried to consult each other for almost everything.
Yarrow: Colin was wrapping up a show and came on a little bit later, so there was a handoff at some point. I think it was Episode 2 that I got shared credit on, but he took it from an early stage and took it over the finish line. He handled a lot of the creative things that happened in it. Then I had to leave early, so they both came in and took over to help see those episodes through as well. It really was a team effort for a lot of these.
Rich: It was such a long show and production that a lot of us came and went at different points in time.
Vu: It was also shot in a confusing way. For example, there would be days when they shot 102 and then 104 and then a small section for 105.
Was it block-shot? Like the first five days and then the aftermath?
Vu: Kind of. It’s complicated since the last three episodes have a bunch of flashbacks that were separate scenes all together, but they were obviously shot at the hospital. So those were shot during Episodes 1 through 5, but then sometimes, because of scheduling, there would be stuff shot for the later episodes early on as well.
I’d like to call it block shooting, but it was like a free-for-all. It was such a complicated production that our post producer, Ra’uf Glasgow, would have a handle on the schedule one day, but the next day he’d say he had no idea what it was anymore (laughs). We just had to play it by ear.
How long was post?
Vu: I was on the show the longest, and I started May 2021 and finished just shy of May 2022. But Colin and I wanted to continue to be involved, so we were going to meetings well into June.
Yarrow: I came on after Lu but had to leave at the end of November. So I was there from about June 2021 through end of November 2021.
Vu: Part of why Colin and I stayed on toward the end is because it’s such a VFX-heavy show, which is weird to say since it’s not like a sci-fi show. But there was a lot that had to be recreated, and it was fairly complicated because they were so tied to story points. It wasn’t just blowing up this building or whatever. Colin came on in July 2022.
Can you talk about the show’s structure and how it evolved? One of the things I noticed was how most episodes start with these really effective interviews.
Vu: John had always conceived of it that way. He likes to do this thing, which he’s done in other projects, where he keeps the interviewer away. Colin and I realized well into the project that it’s like in Rashomon, where you hear people asking questions, but you never see them. It keeps a clean perspective because you’re not involved with the interviewers; you’re only hearing what they’re saying. So structurally that was always there, though I think we ended up adding an interview at the end of one episode.
Yarrow: Yes, in 103, we added an end interview.
Rich: In terms of the global structure of the show, a lot came from John and Carlton, who themselves kind of bifurcated the show — there was a John half and a Carleton half. Also, Sheri Fink’s book is structured so that she goes through the five days first, and then the second half is about the investigation. One thing that was interesting for me was how, even though they’re connected, the two halves have different themes and intentions.
Rich: Having worked more closely with the latter three episodes, those are the ones that are trying to get answers even if that clarity doesn’t exist. At times I felt pulled into my own opinions and biases, which is something we had to be careful about. For example, we had to recognize if music was too arch because that would be tipping our hand in a certain way. We also took out some flashbacks that were leaning too far in one direction. We made a conscious effort to keep things in that gray, which I think was easier to find in the first five episodes because that’s when we were living in empathy with the characters.
Before I let you go, can you talk about a favorite moment from a different editor’s episode and why you like it?
Yu: There’s a scene of JoAnne’s between Pou (Vera Farmiga) and Mulderick (Cherry Jones) where it seems like they might be speaking in code, but you’re not sure. They appear to come to an agreement. It can be interpreted in many different ways. To me, it gets to the heart of the question of the show. There are all these subtle moves with each of them, and both actresses did such a phenomenal job. I remember looking at that scene and the subtle facial expressions each of them made and asking, “Did they mean what they just said, or was that something else?”
Yarrow: There’s a part at the end of Episode 2, which I initially worked on. It was very cool to have some exposure to it and then see someone like Colin take it and elevate it. There’s the final shot of Pou looking out the window, and we flash to all this chaos of what’s happening in the outside world as she’s trying to reach her husband. When I watched that with a little bit of space, I loved it. Colin does this thing when he uses archival to make it frenetic. It swipes by and adds to the chaos of what’s going on. I thought it was really brilliantly used there. It elevated the ending in a way that I wasn’t prepared for.
Rich: Thank you. I loved so much of what Lu did in 101 and 104. In 101, there is a sequence at the peak of the storm when an older patient looks out the window. It’s a great series of violent cuts, and Lu changed the aspect ratio while he did it. There’s also these great audio cuts. That was really cool to see and feel at the premiere in a real movie theater with great sound. It’s a really intense sequence that gets under my skin in a great way.
Finally, what are you watching that you’re loving right now?
Vu: One of the things John mentioned early on for us to watch is a movie called An Elephant Sitting Still. It’s great, long and depressing as all hell (laughs). But what made me think of it was going back and watching a lot of Wong Kar-wai after finishing this project. I’m going through all of his movies right now. It reminds me of what I love about the work we get to do with John.
Rich: That’s funny. Lu and I met up about two weeks ago and talked about Wong Kar-wai, and I was going to say that I’d watched Fallen Angels, which is one of his movies from the ’90s, and what I loved about it and his work is how the style and form of the movie are in concert with the theme or intention of the piece. It’s a movie where everything is in concert, from the editing to the lighting to the production design, which is also a depiction of the state that the characters live in. Everything’s fractured and fast, and there are these crazy, warped images, and it’s an expression of the world that they live in.
Yarrow: I haven’t been catching up with my Wong Kar-wai, even though I love him. I haven’t really been watching anything because I’m finishing up a job. But I will say that the show Bad Sisters is going to be first on my list of things to watch once I wrap up.