By Alan French, Awards Circuit
Ava DuVernay continues to prove she is one of the most dynamic and creative voices of her generation. After finding success at the Oscars with “13th” and “Selma,” DuVernay continues to conquer television. In addition to winning two Emmys for “13th,” she produces several critically acclaimed series. This year, she continued her examination of the black community and the criminal justice system. Her new Netflix Limited Series “When They See Us,” examines the Central Park Five. In 1989, someone raped a female jogger in Central Park. In the aftermath, members of the NYPD coerced five young boys of color into giving false confessions. Years later, the State of New York exonerated the boys when the real rapist confessed. All five served at least six years in jail, with Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome) serving thirteen years.
DuVernay attracts strong talent to her projects, and editors Terilyn Shropshire and Michelle Tesoro are no exception. Shropshire received an Emmy nomination as an editor on the 2002 Oscars. She also cut Gina Pryce-Blythwood‘s “Love & Basketball” and Kasi Lemmons‘ “Eve’s Bayou.” Meanwhile, Tesoro has become a regular at Netflix, helping to craft “Godless,” and “House of Cards.” She also cut “On the Basis of Sex” last year for Focus Features. The two women sat down with me to discuss their work on “When They See Us.” We discussed Ava DuVernay’s craft, the challenges of balancing more than half a dozen storylines points of view, and the emotion present throughout the frontrunner for Limited Series.
Alan French/Awards Circuit: I’m here with two of the editors of the spectacular “When They See Us,” Terilyn Shropshire and Michelle Tesoro. How did each of you first get involved with “When They See Us?”
Terilyn Shropshire: I got involved through Ava. We’d actually known each other for quite a while even though we came up in the industry in different ways. Obviously, I came up as an editor. Ava was a publicist who had her own firm. She was involved in a few of the films that I was editing at the time, so as she transitioned to focusing more on filmmaking, we always stayed in touch.
I went to help Ava and Spencer [Averick] (the third editor on “When They See Us”) because they were facing a deadline on “A Wrinkle in Time.” When they were about to start “When They See Us,” she gave me a call and asked if I was available. I told her I would absolutely love to.
Michelle Tesoro: When I came on at the end of September, they had already been shooting for two months. Originally Teri was supposed to do “Part One” and “Part Three,” while Spencer was going to do “Part Two” and “Part Four.”
TS: Yeah, when I originally came on I was supposed to be joining another project. Ava knew that, but the project kept getting pushed. When it came time for three to start there was some overlap. As soon as we decided to have Michelle come in and do three, my other project pushed. The good news was that I had extra time to focus on “Part One.” It was going to be the episode that launched the whole piece.
MT: Yeah I don’t know how you would have been able to do “Part One” and “Part Three” if we’re being honest. Knowing what we know now, it would have been really tough. I had just finished working with Jonathan King (one of our producers) on “The Basis of Sex” and I had heard about this project from him. That’s how I came to meet Ava, Teri, and Spencer, and how I came to work on the show.
AF: With three editors on the project how do you create consistency in the edit?
TS: Well with “Part One,” we knew we had to set the tone for the piece. People always ask me ‘what’s my style,’ but I feel like the footage dictates my style. Ultimately it adapts when I see how Ava and Bradford (Young) shoot the script. When the dailies started coming in, there was a clear vision. As an editor, you want to facilitate that.
I think it is the same for Spencer and Michelle. We had a collaborative unit because we could work on our cuts, but then show it to each other. You can then get a sense of where one is taking two and where two is taking three, etc.
MT: I agree because the style we’re following is Ava’s. It’s imbued in the footage. She would bounce around from editing room to editing room. Of course she had a way she wanted it to go. She always talked about “making stews.” There’s a lot of “stews” in our show, where you’re mixing several ideas together. throughout. We were also looking at each other’s cuts and giving each other thoughts and ideas on how to approach the material.
TS: Part of the journey is setting up a character or element that will pay off in future episodes. There had to be communication between the editors for those moments to work. We would talk about Antron (Caleel Harris) and his father (Michael K. Williams) and how their relationship should evolve. My part builds the foundation for the relationship to change. His father tells Antron what he needs to do to get away from the police. That’s an element in the journey between Antron and his father throughout the rest of the series. It’s not just about looking about where it’s going, but knowing where it needs to land. If I can set up ideas that will help land a moment in another episode, I can find a way to put them there.
AF: How did Ava push you as an editor to explore your craft?
MT: I felt a lot of freedom working with Ava. She demands that you bring your ideas and creativity to the table. We were actually suffering from an embarrassment of riches when it came to the shooting. Instead of being prescriptive and telling us she wanted us to cut it a certain way, she would tell us to cut half an hour out of this show. She would ask us to “show me how you would do it.”
In my particular episode, we have to feel the emotional connections between the young boys and their counterparts. You have to really think, how would I do that? If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. There’s no shame in that. At least there is another version that was attempted. Not everybody gives you the opportunity to work with tools from your skillset. You can ask what you’ve done before, and see if it can help here. Or you can think of something you’ve never tried before and test it out.
TS: People always talk about directors and their work in the production. But part of being a director is knowing when to give your artists the freedom to find the solutions. At the same time, a good director will know when it’s time to make those adjustments.
What’s great about Ava is on any given day, you might have a slight block. She’ll come in and be laser focused. She can say one word, give one suggestion, or pose one “what if?” and then suddenly you’re in that space. That’s what’s really great about working with her. She knows what she wants, but she gives you the space to show the alternatives or what-ifs on screen.
AF: How difficult is it to spread a story across so many perspectives? Teri, I know that you have to tell the stories of all five boys, as well as the police who are investigating the rape. How do you work on balancing each story?
TS: It always had to start with the boys. There were a number of different ways to start this story, but something Ava and I always talked about was that you really needed to get planted in these boys lives before everything goes south. They could be boys from anywhere. One would argue that the park or the jogger that ignites it, but it really starts with these boys. They all made a decision to go hang out in the park that night. We wanted to see how they got there. I think in some ways, once we decided that was going to be connective tissue, everything else fell into place.
Everybody had their own arc that needed to be told. You have to get into the precinct and understand who those people were. We have to understand their motivations, especially for someone like Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman). She felt like she was part of a special crime unit that was witnessing a lot of rapes and felt this was her mission. Everybody at a certain level had their own truth. But these boys got destroyed as a result. Once you start to follow these boys, it is easier to understand what the structure is going to be.
AF: You did such a successful job setting up the boys that my wife, who was a public defender, had to step out of the room because it hit too close to home. You definitely accomplish those bonds with boys. Michelle, you had to not only balance the boys but link them to their adult counterparts. Tell me about that process for you.
MT: That was one of the more important challenges for “Part Three.” From a technical standpoint, you have to get the audience to understand that this young boy is now this new actor with a new face. You’ve never seen them before. You’re trying to find the common thread to make that transition.
Originally in the script, it was more spread out and we didn’t see the transitions of every boy growing into the man. It was just the telephone transition of Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez/Freddy Miyares) and his father (John Leguizamo). We realized fairly quickly that because everyone has grown to know these boys, we have to help connect them. We restructured it so that you see each transition within the first forty minutes of the episode.
To make those transitions work, we have to find a certain emotional connection that would resonate with each boy when they were older. It was challenging but it was a thrill to get that story working emotionally while also telling a larger story about incarceration through Raymond. On another level, “When They See Us” tells the story of how their time in prison affected their families.
AF: I connected with Antron’s story the most, specifically his relationship with his mother (Linda Stephanie Blake) as he transitioned into adulthood. Were there any moments that stood out while you were cutting?
TS: Yes, I would say for me that the Kevin (Asante Blackk) interrogation was heartbreaking. Asante, the actor who plays Kevin, amazed me on a daily basis. Ultimately that transition from him being interrogated and watching him make up the story was heartbreaking.
Watching Antron and his father was difficult too. Every time I hit that scene and his father blows up, telling Antron what the Police can do to you, that’s the scene where Antron goes from being a boy to a man. When he sees his father telling him the truth and telling him he has to lie, he changes. With each of these boys, I watched their boyhood just dissolve and that was heartbreaking to watch them become men before they were ready.
MT: There were a lot of moments. For me, the Antron storyline was the most complicated. Parents have fears and make mistakes, and when his father convinces Antron to lie, he’s fearful of what could happen to his son. Later in my episode, you see their final moments together. It was a complicated and compelling storyline. In “Part Four” we see the dynamic between Korey, his sister, and what that family dynamic looked like. These people weren’t perfect, but when you add additional stress, it becomes difficult for a young person to handle.
AF: What were the greatest challenges you faced when cutting “When They See Us?”
TS: You know you only have a finite amount of time to introduce these boys, their families and the detectives. There are some people that know this story and some that don’t. In a sense, you’re making sure you bring the right information in at the right time. When do we introduce Trisha Meili? How do we recognize what is happening to each boy individually and what’s happening to them collectively?
At times the script was more linear, but when you see the boys implicating each other without knowing each other, but then you see the boys in the room at the same time, the audience realizes these kids are meeting each other for the first time. Building to that scene had its share of challenges, but that’s why I love editing. The ability to try things and find where the story wants to go is challenging but it’s the air that I breathe on a professional level.
MT: I would say Teri had the most challenges because she had to establish this story, where I had the emotional backdrop that has already been built by the time they get to my episode. I’m not going to say it wasn’t challenging, but by the time you get to me, I’m more worried about finding out what people need by hour 3. I think they need a little levity, or that these boys are going to be okay. We even find resolutions for some of them. The story doesn’t end with the boys getting out, it continues to go.
“When They See Us” Stars Jharrel Jerome
TS: I think Michelle is not giving herself enough credit. As an audience member for Part 3, I can see the difficulty in taking the boys that the audience grows attached to and turning them into men.
MT: I guess you’re right, but I didn’t see that as a challenge per se. Part of our job is to find those puzzles and solve them. I approached it like a puzzle and if I was in another job, I’d have to solve different problems.
AF: This is one of the best shows I’ve seen in a few years, so thank you for bringing this story to life.
TS: Thank you!
MT: Yeah, thank you so much!