At the New School in New York, Todd Downing--who was raised in Illinois--learned filmmaking and editing from the Kuchar Brothers and Alan Berliner. Downing went on to make short comical art films that played at hundreds of festivals, including The Berlinale and at esteemed cinemas such as The National Film Theatre in London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
After moving to London in 2003, Downing became a full-time editor specializing in long-form documentary for the BBC and Channel 4 and tackling subjects such as the Syrian Civil War, homelessness and PTSD in soldiers returning from Afghanistan. In 2015, he moved back to the U.S. and began editing scripted comedy and drama, including Difficult People, Younger, SMILF, Russian Doll, and Mrs. America. He’s been nominated for three BAFTAS, an ACE Eddie (for “The Way Out” episode of Russian Doll), an HPA Award, and won two Royal Television Society Awards.
Mrs. America (FX Network series, FX on Hulu) 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 Schafly, 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 miniseries was created by a woman, Dahvi Waller, and largely written and directed by women.
Downing cut three of the episodes, and shared his thoughts on the show as well as how his work on it was impacted by his previous experience in documentaries and later Russian Doll.
SHOOT: Provide some backstory on what drew you to Mrs. America. How did you get the opportunity to work on the series?
Downing: A production executive at FX who had seen Russian Doll and liked the editing sought me out for Mrs. America. I cut “Shirley” (episode 3), “Jill” (episode 6), and “Houston” (episode 8). It was an attractive project to me because it tells the story from both the anti-feminist and feminist viewpoints. The anti-feminists are definitely the antagonists, but we get to understand them as well.
SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest creative challenge(s) that Mrs. America posed to you as an editor? And if you prefer to narrow it down, what would be the biggest challenge(s) that the “Houston” episode posed to you.
Downing: There were two big challenges, both exemplified in the “Houston” episode. The most obvious one was Alice’s (Macray, a fictional character/housewife opposed to the ERA, portrayed by Sarah Paulson) drug trip. She goes to the International Women’s Convention in Houston, basically behind enemy lines, to promote her anti-ERA position. While there she is given a pill to help with her nerves (“a Christian pill”) and it sends her off into a loopy world where she encounters a primal scream room, abortion activists, experimental film and a lesbian lounge. We wanted to keep the audience connected and identified with her, refraining from getting too flashy and over-the-top psychedelia with how we presented the trip. So we tried to do more with sound, pacing, slightly off cuts and jump cuts that clued you in that something was different but didn’t call too much attention to the editing and distract from Sarah Paulson’s performance, which I think was incredible.
The other challenge, which I always love when it works, was making the long scene of Sarah’s character talking at the bar to another attendee of the conference. It’s just shot, reaction shot, and two shots but goes on for seven minutes. You have to have great writing and performances to get that to work but even with that the timing in the editing and figuring out which lines can be cut or moved is really important to keep the audience engaged. I love it when I can cut together an engaging, long conversation and have as much drama as an action sequence.
SHOOT: What was your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from your experience on Mrs. America?
Downing: It sounds like something I should have learned 20 years ago when I started editing, but how impactful good acting is to a story! The level of talent of these actors is beyond anything I could have imagined. I could really focus on other things to be inventive with like sound, rhythm, and creating unique atmospheres. Almost every take from these women was usable.
SHOOT: You have a documentary background. Would you give us a handle on how you started in documentaries, how you made the transition to narrative episodic TV and in that vein how your documentary sensibilities and experience helped you, if at all, on Mrs. America?
Downing: I was living in London in the 2000s and just sort of fell into the documentary world there. I had been making weird, comic short films that played a lot in the art world and festivals when I lived in New York in the ‘90s but that all dried up when I moved to London so I just focused on editing and became the go-to guy for big depressing BBC docs – but I got three BAFTA nominations and two Royal Television Society wins out of it. Then when Hulu started, the showrunner (Scott King) in New York knew I had some comedy chops so he hired me to edit Difficult People and it just sort of took off from there. He brought me on to SMILF and there I met the showrunner of Russian Doll (Leslye Headland).
I think knowing how to cut documentaries always helps with scripted. Since you are used to working without a script and have to know how to write one in the edit, you have a more open mind about what can be done with scripted. I think I learned to look for things to use or move or cut that one who has only worked in scripted might not.
SHOOT: It’s said that one experience informs another. I wonder how or if your experience on Russian Doll, which included recognition with an ACE Award nomination, may have enabled you to bring something from that show to Mrs. America in terms of art, approach, craft, etc.
Downing: On Russian Doll, I was working with an immense level of talent and took a lot away from it. Leslye is a brilliant writer and that carries over into the edit so I learned some tricks from her about what can be done in a scene. And Natasha (Lyonne) is one of the most creative people I’ve ever met; she gave me confidence to try things that maybe I would have been too hesitant to do before. There were a few times I’d show her things that were kind of insane, fully thinking we’d just take them out after having a laugh but she’d say, “keep it!” My big takeaway from Russian Doll was don’t hold back or be afraid to try anything.