Alan Baumgarten Reflects On Editing "Being the Ricardos"
Alan Baumgarten, ACE
Two-time Oscar nominee continues his collaborative relationship with writer-director Aaron Sorkin

The late Hollywood columnist and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne referred to Lucille Ball in her heyday as likely being “the most famous woman in the world.” And writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s new film, Being the Ricardos (Amazon Studios), brings us a most challenging week during that heyday--with I Love Lucy at the height of its popularity, and Ball (portrayed by Nicole Kidman) well established for a long reign as the queen of television comedy. It’s a week--with some flashback context provided--when Ball and her husband, I Love Lucy co-star and behind-the-scenes genius Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), are in the throes of much uncertainty and anxiety.

For one, Ball has doubts about her husband’s fidelity. Then there’s the matter of her pregnancy with Ball and Arnaz trying to convince CBS and skittish sponsors to let her be expectant on the show. And looming even larger is the emerging accusation that Ball is a communist, which could be the death knell for I Love Lucy given the tenor of the times.

Supporting characters include I Love Lucy writers Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll Jr. (Jake Lacy), showrunner Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale), and of course Vivian Vance who played Ethel Mertz in the show (Nina Arianda) and William Frawley a.k.a. Fred Mertz (J.K. Simmons).

To edit Being the Ricardos, Sorkin turned to a collaborator with whom he has a creative track record--Alan Baumgarten, ACE. Baumgarten first served as one of three editors on Sorkin’s feature directorial debut, Molly’s Game, and then was the lone cutter on Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. The latter earned Baumgarten his second career Oscar nomination earlier this year, the first coming in 2014 for director David O. Russell’s American Hustle. Baumgarten is also a three-time ACE Eddie Award winner--for the Jay Roach-directed telefilm Recount, then American Hustle and The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Baumgarten feels that it was on The Trial of the Chicago 7 that he began to develop an instinctive creative shorthand with Sorkin. “I settled into a groove of knowing what he’s looking for, what he’s trying to achieve in his script.” At the same time, continued Baumgarten, acting performances add new wrinkles with Sorkin being responsive to them, open to new ideas and approaches when it comes to all aspects of the project, including editing.

Baumgarten also had the luxury of having read the script for Being the Ricardos well in advance of production, giving him ample time to ponder and ruminate over the story. “That really helped,” he affirmed, noting that he didn’t get that opportunity on either Molly’s Game or The Trial of the Chicago 7

Among the prime challenges posed by Being the Ricardos, shared Baumgarten, was “how to portray the thought process, the inner workings of Lucille Ball when she’s thinking about how scenes (for I Love Lucy) play out. We go into her head and see in black and white those moments of what she was imagining the show would be.”

For the editor, it was a delicate proposition to strike the right balance between delving inside Ball’s mind and then those black-and white moments of the show as she envisioned them. Baumgarten described Ball in these instances as being akin to “a chess master thinking several moves ahead.”  Baumgarten cited such scenes in Being the Ricardos as a table read of an episode which sparked Ball’s imagination and instant recognition of what the necessary beats and pacing should be in order for a particular scene to realize its full potential--and another example when there was no script but merely cards on a wall outlining a premise, prompting Ball to hash out what fans of the show came to recognize as a classic episode of her stomping grapes in an Italian vineyard.

Another instance saw Ball re-imagining a scene in which Fred and Ethel are sitting side by side on a short piano bench, jockeying for position, elbowing each other as they take turns falling off their perch to great comedic effect--far funnier than what the original I Love Lucy script called for. These scenes in Being the Ricardos underscored Ball’s comic genius, her uncanny sense of what makes a scene work--and gives rise to the notion that in a more progressive era she would have been a masterful director, not just of her own show but others of her own choosing.

Character insights abound with Vance tired of having to play down her looks, Frawley alternating between prickly boozer and an empathetic soul with some wisdom to share, and Pugh championing her gender’s cause as a rare woman in a television writing room trying to protect the character of Lucy from being trivialized. Then there’s the career-threatening dynamic of the Joseph McCarthy blacklisting era which carries its own implications for what’s going on in society today, mildly reminiscent of how The Trial of the Chicago 7 had even more profound lessons for contemporary life and issues.

Baumgarten said that his biggest takeaway from Being the Ricardos was how he values those glimpses into the characters’ lives, being able to dive into the world of I Love Lucy, and to touch upon the importance of historical events. Yet there’s no heavy-handedness overtly trying to compare one era to another, observed Baumgarten. Rather he merely served as an editor/storyteller trying to do justice to the characters and their situations--and then having whatever parallels and direct connections to today just naturally emerge.

Baumgarten noted how much he enjoys working with Sorkin who while providing a brilliant script and direction still affords artists the freedom to be artists. “Once we get into shooting, Aaron leaves me alone. He doesn’t watch cuts along the way. He doesn’t review cuts over the weekend. He lets me put the film together (with some occasional emails, phone calls and notes to voice any concerns or suggestions about scenes that have been shot).”

Then in postproduction Baumgarten and Sorkin come together in person for the first assembly of the film, working through it chronologically. The writer-director reviews the film during a projected screening for the two of them, offering input. “He doesn’t prescribe exact beats or timing,” related Baumgarten. “He lets me find the answers to the issues he brings up” as the collaborative process continues all in service of the characters and the story.

Besides the aforementioned pair of Oscar nominations and trio of Eddie Award winners, Baumgarten has landed three other Eddie nods over the years--for the telefilm Losing Chase in 1997, and the features Joy in 2015 and Molly’s Game in 2018. He also garnered a Best Editing BAFTA Film Award nomination earlier this year for The Trial of the Chicago 7.

This is the fourth installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 94th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, February 8, 2022. The 94th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 27, 2022.

MySHOOT Company Profiles