On the strength of Mrs. America (FX Networks), Robert Komatsu, ACE recently earned his first career Emmy nomination. The nod was for the episode titled “Phyllis” and came in the Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Limited Series or Movie category. Komatsu not only cut “Phyllis,” the first episode of Mrs. America, but also “Betty” and “Bella,” the fourth and seventh episodes, respectively.
Mrs. America dramatizes the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), delving into how the proposed constitutional amendment was blocked while depicting American society circa 1970. While the story is driven by Cate Blanchett as ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly, Mrs. America also provides insights into women of color who figured prominently such as trailblazing politician Shirley Chisholm portrayed by Uzo Aduba and activist attorney Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, a role played by Niecy Nash. White progressives in the women’s right movement included Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman).
The limited series was created by a woman, Dahvi Waller, and largely written and directed by women.
Komatsu’s Emmy nomination is one of 10 earned by Mrs. America, including for Outstanding Limited Series, Writing for a Limited Series (Tanya Barfield), Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie (Blanchett), and three for Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie (Aduba, Martindale, Ullman)
For Komatsu, Mrs. America followed his work as an editor on the Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment feature A Dog’s Journey. Among his credits over the years are the series The X-Files, Halt and Catch Fire, American Horror Story, I’m Dying Up Here and the feature films Jobs and Giant Mechanical Man.
Komatsu began his career as a VFX editor on The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions before working for Ron Howard as the first assistant editor on How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Cinderella Man. Komatsu was upped to associate editor on Howard’s The Da Vinci Code and was credited as additional editor on Frost/Nixon and Angels & Demons.
Komatsu is a graduate of UCLA and makes his home in Los Angeles.
SHOOT: This is your first career Emmy nomination. Would you reflect a bit on what the nomination means to you personally and professionally.
Komatsu: Personally, I am beyond thrilled! There are so many incredible shows crafted by such talented editors. To have been nominated by my peers is such a huge honor. Professionally, I have no idea where this might lead. In my career, there have been projects I really wanted that I got but also projects I really wanted that I didn’t get. In the end, the projects I edited led to the next projects I edited, and so on, which led to this. So I guess we’ll just have to see.
SHOOT: Provide some backstory. What drew you to Mrs. America. How did you get the opportunity to work on the series?
Komatsu: Dahvi Waller, our showrunner and creator, and I both worked on Halt and Catch Fire, but we never met. I started visiting the writers’ room in season three and she left after season two to develop Mrs. America.
My agent, Jasan Pagni at WME, called to say that the show was interested in me and they requested me to read the first two scripts, written by Dahvi. So I was immediately interested. Jasan told me about the cast and I couldn’t believe all these actors were going to be in one project. Then he told me it was being directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who had just finished Captain Marvel.
I read the two scripts that were provided, titled “Phyllis” and “Gloria.” These were two of the best scripts I had ever read. I love ‘70s films, like All The President’s Men, and I love political dramas. I knew I had to do the show.
My first meeting was with Anna and Ryan over Skype, because they started prepping in Toronto. We discussed their vision for the show. I presented song and score ideas I had and talked about the pacing I envisioned.
My second meeting was with Dahvi, but she wanted to meet me in person, so it took a few days since she was also in Toronto. This meeting was epic. We reminisced about Halt and Catch Fire. We discussed story points in the scripts. Apparently, the meeting went so long that the rest of Dahvi’s meetings had to be re-scheduled for the next day. I drove home from the meeting and about an hour later, my agent called to say I got the show!
SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest creative challenge(s) posed by episode one (“Phyllis”) to you as an editor?
Komatsu: The split screen sequence in the pilot was not scripted but it became a style for the season as a whole. When we were about to start shooting the section where Phyllis mails out her newsletter to recruit other housewives to help her stop the ERA, Anna and Ryan called me to say they were planning on shooting it as a split screen sequence. We weren’t yet sure of the specific visual style, so I created a few different concepts to send to them. We eventually landed on one that was “chunky” and that had a ‘70s vibe.
One of the biggest challenges was that most of the split screen footage wasn’t shot yet and wasn’t scheduled to be shot for a month or so. What I currently had were a few shots of housewives opening and reading Phyllis’ newsletter. I also had a few shots of names being typed onto mailing envelopes and a few shots of envelopes piling up. What I didn’t have were shots of Cate Blanchett. I used what I had to build the first version of the split screen, sometimes using the same shots repeatedly as placeholders, and I made placeholders of Cate from the Goldwater scene. Eventually, more real footage came in, based on the template I created and worked on with Anna and Ryan. Of course, every new shot had a different framing from the fake placeholder I was using, which meant that every shot had to be re-keyframed for scaling, cropping, and position. The end of the sequence was dynamic. We have a shot of nine panels showing nine different housewives. Those panels individually cut to nine panels of Phyllis’ newsletter, the envelopes, and the typing. And those nine panels then cut to nine identical panels of Phyllis. The center panel expanded, pushing the other eight off the frame, until it was full frame and that’s where the sequence naturally ended.
We also worked with archival footage in the pilot and the series. This also was not scripted. However, the producers had ideas for themes per episode. The pilot was to explore the Pro-ERA marches in Washington DC and the period of time immediately following Shirley Chisholm announcing her run for the Presidency.
First I tackled the ERA march. I selected footage of Pro-ERA women marching in Washington and found good shots that were not only engaging, but also visually dynamic, using zooms and pans. We thought of placing the sequence right after Phyllis arrives by taxi at the Longworth House, (one of the buildings used by the House of Representatives) and before she has her meeting with Congressman Phil Crane. You see her clock our extras playing the Pro-ERA women, and then we cut to archival footage of the march. Then, we cut back to Phyllis walking through the crowd. It also made sense musically, as we used Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” and could really feature the song. But as we continued working on the episode in postproduction, we felt this archival section wasn’t needed, and it potentially disrupted the momentum we were building for Phyllis’ arrival in Washington.
For the Shirley Chisholm section, although there was a lot of choices of archival footage on many subjects, I immediately gravitated towards a reporter who asked people on the street what they thought of a woman running for President. The answers were varied, and not always what you’d expect. It was fun to cut these responses together and to juxtapose their opinions. Placing the sequence was a no-brainer. When Shirley announces that she’s running for President, we cue the song “Fire” by Etta James and cut to the voters on the street. The song’s energy then carries us to the feminist side for the first time in the series, along with the feminist side’s more energetic hand-held visual style.
One of the biggest scenes of the episode is when Phyllis goes to Washington to attend a meeting with Senator Goldwater regarding military defense. She’s thrilled to have been invited, but right after she initially gives input, she’s dismissed to get a pen and paper to take notes. She’s a woman, so it’s assumed she probably had the best handwriting. When she’s outside the office, we show her POV, half-obscured glimpses of the men continuing the meeting without her. We decided to play with sound design, muffling the men, giving the effect of going internally into her head, with her dark thoughts. She just wants to get back into that room. One of those POV shots racks focus from Phil Crane to an open window behind him. We shift the sound to outside the window, where we can hear the Pro-ERA chants of the marchers. This gives Phyllis the idea to pivot. She realizes that she’ll never reach the national stage with military defense, but perhaps she can by opposing the ERA. She returns to the meeting, where we increasingly ratcheted up the pace as Phyllis goes on a tear against the men in the room about the subject of the ERA.
SHOOT: What was the nature of your collaborative relationship with directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck on “Phyllis” (the all important first episode) and “Bella”?
Komatsu: Although Anna and Ryan have directed television, they are primarily feature film directors. Stacey Sher and Coco Francini, two of our executive producers, are from features. My background is also in features. They brought their feature experience to the strategy of editing Mrs. America.
Every few days during the shoot of episode 1, I would send cut scenes to Anna and Ryan for feedback. After receiving notes, I’d send revisions back to them and at the same time, I’d edit fresh scenes from dailies. We continued this process for the entire shoot. In fact, when Anna and Ryan came into the cutting room to screen my editor’s cut, it was more like a first pass of a directors’ cut.
Normally, on a one-hour drama, the director or directors get four days in the cutting room to turn in their cut and the producers get about a week before showing the studio. The studios then have a few weeks to lock the episode. But the producers and the studio worked out a much longer schedule since we weren’t releasing until next April. The schedule was built like a feature. We had more time to edit and revise. We had more time to mix. We didn’t even break up the episode into separate acts until the very end (the scripts never had act breaks). Specifically, during our extended producers’ cut, we would constantly revisit scenes. I think it’s incredibly useful to put scenes away and come back to them with fresh eyes. Things that seemed crystal clear at the time might not seem so in a few weeks, or months. And with a fresh perspective, you often find a different way of tackling a problem or improving an already good scene. We also concentrated on vetting each performance from our actors. I think that Cate Blanchett is incapable of giving a bad performance, but she did give choices. Since she and the other actresses represented historical figures, it was essential to make sure that every line reading had the truest essence of the real person. Cate Blanchett or Tracey Ullman might have given a version of a line that brought us to tears or had us laughing, but if it wasn’t true to what Phyllis Schlafly or Betty Friedan would have done in the moment, we wouldn’t use it. We used the same sort of vetting strategy for moments within scenes as well. In Episode 7 “Bella,” Phyllis gets pied in the face. That really happened! But we made sure to be careful so that the comedy played, but that we didn’t overdo it so it seemed like farce, or a made up event just for our show.
Another feature-film strategy we employed was to book a screening room at Technicolor for friends and family screenings. This way, we could get honest feedback from people who were not involved with our show. We would even hand out “cards” like studio audience-recruited preview screenings, to get data back on our show, such as which character tracked best, etc…
When Anna and Ryan had to return to Toronto to prep episodes 7, “Bella,” and 9, “Reagan,” I continued to edit with them remotely, using a system called Haivision, which would stream my Avid output so that Anna and Ryan could view it on a monitor in Toronto. We’d simply speak to each other on speakerphone to discuss. The only drawback was a two second delay in the output between Los Angeles and Toronto, so unless you muted your phones, you’d hear everything twice.
SHOOT: What was your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from your experience on Mrs. America?
Komatsu: I felt like I got to do a deep dive into an important part of our history, and that was really enjoyable. But ultimately, I think my biggest takeaway is the relationships I made with Anna, Ryan, Dahvi, and also with fellow editor Emily Greene. Emily and I collaborated on a lot of the vibe with temp music and we co-designed our large-styled titles used throughout the series, when we display the year or how many states have ratified the ERA. And of course having my assistant, Matt Crawford, work alongside me was gratifying. This was our fifth project together and he earned an additional editor credit on the “Bella” episode.