Terilyn Shropshire discusses working with Ava DuVernay and editing ‘When They See Us’ – “It was difficult. It was devastating and it was beautiful.”
This past weekend, Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us dropped on Netflix. Based on the true story, DuVernay’s four-part limited series focuses on Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. The media called them the “Central Park Five” – five boys who were arrested for the rape of a woman jogger in Central Park. Forced into admitting their guilt, the boys were wrongly imprisoned from 1989 to 2002 when DNA evidence cleared them and Matias Reyes admitted his guilt.
DuVernay’s powerful series is a masterpiece, a gripping and important watch with outstanding performances from the actors as we follow their journey and it’s a gut-wrenching one to follow. To set the tone and pace, DuVernay worked with editors Terilyn Shropshire and Michelle Teroso to build the tone and pace of the series. I caught up with Shropshire who edited Episode one. Shropshire talks about the challenges and importance of getting the pace right in episode one.
Tesoro joined us towards the end of our chat to talk about editing episode three and her challenges.
Read our chat below and stream When They See Us on Netflix now.
You had known Ava for a long time before you actually worked on this?
I had known Ava DuVernay before she was Ava DuVernay, the director she is now. I knew her when she was a publicist and working on films that I had worked on. She worked on The Secret Life of Bees, Waist Deep, American Violet and Diary of a Mad Black Woman. When I first met her, it was her uplifting and promoting so many filmmakers where a lot of times the studios just didn’t know how to promote these films. They’d bring Ava in, and she would do her thing. Even before she was directing, the LA Weekly used to do this thing every year where they’d highlight people from Los Angeles. And at one point, Ernest Hardy who was working there at the time asked Ava who should we be featuring and she said, you should know who
Terilyn A. Shropshire is, and that’s how I got my LA Weekly article because Ava was always looking out. She has always looked out for filmmakers. When she became a filmmaker herself – which I was so incredibly proud of. The first time we worked together in the editing room was to help Spencer (Averick) and Ava get their director’s cut ready for the studio for A Wrinkle in Time. I was just there briefly in a supportive deadline capacity.
When she was deciding to do When They See Us, she called me and how could I not be a part of this.
The scripts were phenomenal. It was something she knew that was going to be special, and you were just incredibly grateful to be a part of.
Once you read that script, aside from talking to Ava, what was your process?
I make sure I’m watching the script. I don’t generally take notes. I prefer to watch it as if I’m watching the film. As I’m flipping the pages, if something stops me or I have to go back, then that’s communicating something to me as far as story. I ask myself, Why did I stop here?’
Like a lot of people, I knew the story, but I didn’t know the story. I was from California, but I didn’t know it the way a lot of people from New York knew it. In some ways, I felt that was even more helpful to me when I read it because I was the audience. I was learning about these boys as I went through.
The first one was just mind-blowing to really get into what happened and what happened with them. To see them again as boys and any other boy and then watch what happened within the course of thirty hours. That first one was incredibly intense for me. And then, you get into two which is the courtroom and you know what’s going to happen, but you’re still riveted. Four threw me. By the time I got to four, I was in tears on that trajectory. Even then, you know these are men who have survived this, but to go into this, it was difficult. It was devastating and it was beautiful.
What I love so much about what I do is when you do something where you’re learning and you’re experiencing something new that you haven’t experienced before. To be on the journey and to be part that the journey has the same visceral response for the audience is paramount in what I do.
The reading of the script for the first time is incredibly important.
Like you said, it’s so devastating and beautiful and there’s so much in the tone and pace that keeps us on that journey.
When we first started looking at the dailies, we started looking at what Bradford (Young – DP) and Ava were putting together, and it was everything from the beginning of the spring day in Harlem in New York. It’s interesting because I was the first to receive a lot of the footage of just the environment of New York. I became selfish, and it turned out that a lot of the stuff that had initially been shot, ended up getting spread throughout. I had a little less because of the way the show evolved.
One of my favorite shots that they did was when you see the boys and their feet in the grass and it comes up and they’re in the neighborhood. It gives you a sense of universality. It could have been any boys in any part of the world, but these were our boys in Harlem.
I felt Bradford was so specific, even in how he gave the park itself a personality. He gave the precinct that gritty feeling. It reminded me of going into old New York, almost like a Scorsese movie. It was such a visceral feeling of being in a city in 1989 and his work with the production designer was extraordinary. It was an embarrassment of riches when it came to what Bradford and Ava were doing.
I feel to some degree; each part was given its own feel. It was so important that we set the tone for what was coming. It was the responsibility of one to make sure that you knew the characters and their families and we were entering you into that world and that’d you’d have to follow for the next three episodes.
I got them as boys and each one of those actors were incredible to watch and it was heartwrenching. I knew you needed to feel who they were as boys in order to follow who they were as men. That was the real goal in episode one, that you were so in so that you could make that transition.
I love that Ava’s work and style are about the character, she doesn’t need to do the establishing shots. She just has us there up close with the actors. How does that work for you as an editor? We see it in the first episode with the interrogation scenes.
It worked really well within the interrogations because you wanted that sense of claustrophobia and you wanted that sense that they were in this time vacuum. When at the end of the day when Raymond comes in to pick up his son and mentions that he’s been there for 18 hours and hadn’t eaten, that you wanted to feel what that was for them.
In some ways, I felt the ability to come in on a character’s movement whether it was Anton tapping the chair or seeing the detail of who they were, I love that way. I am someone that loves to create a scene that is about discovery. I’m not a big fan of having to lead an audience through a film.
As someone who grew up watching film and movies, I love when a filmmaker allows me to discover things and I think that’s very much Ava’s style. That way, I think we work really well together because I love working in the minutia and bringing you out to the larger picture.
In the first one, we wanted to give a sense of freedom in the park. These boys were just out on a Spring day. You wanted to feel they were just having fun. As the story went, it became a lot more oppressive and closed in and they were trapped. Again, Ava and Bradford did a beautiful job giving you that sense of closing in.
That scene when we’re in the jail at the end and they’re finally seeing one another. The next time you see them again, they’re literally outside getting into police cars. Korey went in and came out 12 years later. He was never released out on bail.
The thing about the interrogations that I found both challenging and rewarding was in the script they were definitely more linear, going through each boy’s interrogation. It’s something that Ava and I worked together on to create more of an inter-weaving of what was happening to each boy individually and collectively.
You talk about working in episode one, how was the series divided between all of you when it came to editing?
We were a three-team relay. I started one. While they were shooting episode one, they were shooting elements of the other episodes.
Michelle: Ava was cross-boarding all parts at the same time. They tried to keep in sequential order, but there were pieces here and there. That’s why so many hands were needed to accommodate all episodes.
Terilyn: We knew instinctively that one would take the longest to do because of the nature of having to introduce everyone.
For Spencer, he knew he was working on episode two. He was watching dailies for the scenes he knew he was going to be working on. I looked at everything as it was coming in. Ava really appreciated daily feedback on what we were saying. We would talk, and we’d send her notes or pickups that she might benefit from. By the time all three of us were there, at any given day, we might all have dailies for our particular part and we’d be creating a feedback letter to Ava based on what we saw and what we thought was amazing.
I worked exclusively on one. Michelle was on three. Spencer was on two and four. In many ways, when we enter into any kind of deadline, I could ask Michelle or Spencer to help; they were always available.
I can not imagine how hard this was to edit because of the nature of the story. What was the most challenging part to edit?
Michelle: The biggest challenge was trying to find the right structure for my episode. I can only speak for three. As an overall challenge, that was the overall one.
Terilyn: When you talk about the potential of editing and what editing is and what it can do in a way that is effortless to the audience, I think that is something that was truly tested for sure.
If you think about it, there is so much of the story to tell. At the end of the day, being able to have the audience follow emotionally these boys and men. How do you introduce them? For one, we went through a lot of discussion on how to bring the audience in. Ultimately, if they don’t care about these boys at the beginning, they’re not going to take the journey. I think structurally you have to forget what you know. You have to bring the audience that they know enough about these boys and by the time you get to the precinct and episode two, you know them on a level that you truly care about what happens to them.