Editor Cindy Mollo scored her fifth Emmy nomination this year for her work on the heralded Netflix family crime drama, Ozark. Netflix submitted her work on the season three premiere episode “Wartime” for consideration. The opening sequence (which you can view with Cindy’s commentary here) of that episode was such a powerful showcase for her talent that the nomination seemed assured from the moment the episode was available to stream.
In our conversation, we talk about “Wartime,” the psychology of Marty and Wendy Byrde, and the final season, due to air next year.
Awards Daily: You’ve been a part of all three seasons of Ozark. Over that time, the show has gained esteem and viewers. This third season felt like a real step up from something that was already great. Did you get that sense while you were working on it?
Cindy Mollo: I actually did. It started with my first conversation with [Ozark writer and executive producer] Chris Mundy–we always sit down at some point before the season starts. I’ll say, ‘Can you tell me what’s going to happen?’ And he’ll say, ‘Do you want to know or do you want to be surprised?’ And I’m always surprised. He can tell me that Darlene and Wyatt are going to hook up, but I can never imagine how they will do it, and how organic and real it will feel. He can tell me that the season is going to bookend with violence in Mexico, and about how they [the Byrdes] may have been dabbling before but now they are really in the middle of this world. But until I read the script and then start cutting the show, I don’t know how that’s going to manifest.
If you think about that first episode [“Wartime”], we start with the violence in Mexico then we go to the cheesy commercials for the casino. Then we see Wendy watching that commercial in her office–which used to be Marty’s office–and then the violence that happens in Mexico comes up on her computer. What I found interesting about that is it’s very chilling for Wendy to realize that while knowing she’s going to meet Omar Navarro. We have that as as background to that meeting. What I didn’t put together immediately about that episode is that not only does the season bookend with violence in Mexico, but that both acts of violence are about sending a message.
AD: There’s also that great scene in the premiere of Wendy at her old house in Chicago, letting the current occupants know that someone has been there. That’s her taking control and being the invisible hand–making a statement of her own.
CM: Right! She’s messing with those people and sending a message. They’re totally innocent, and she’s just kind of feeling her own power. I didn’t realize it early on because that was wasn’t always how the episode was intended to end. It was going to close with Ruth pushing Frank Jr. off the top of the boat. Jason directed it and we were looking at the cut, and he said, ‘What about flipping that?’ That last shot of the open door works as an ending just as well as Marty slamming down his laptop and reacting to what he sees on the security monitor.
AD: A lot of critics have referred to this season of Ozark as Laura Linney’s season. There has always been this simmering resentment for her over putting her career aside for Marty and that really boils over in season three.
CM: That’s exactly right. From the first episode of the first season, we see the banality of her existence. She’s had to sacrifice to keep the family running, and in the third season she even has a great plan. Wendy and Marty have a scene in that first episode where she pitches her idea to keep them safer and to kind of go legit, and Marty shoots her down. You can see it on her face as she’s reciting the details of her plan: she’s happy, she’s proud, she’s energized. When he just says no, it kind of snaps back to that banality. Like here we go again, it’s another dead end for me, and she really needs this.
AD: The dynamic changes after Marty is kidnapped.
CM: When Marty gets kidnapped and taken to Mexico, she has to take more of a role and fill in for him. She feels guilty about it. She thinks that maybe that’s part of why he got kidnapped because she was so confident and sure she could handle the day to day and maybe Navarro thinks that too. At first, when Marty comes back, he appears to have this change of heart and willingness to do it her way, which makes Wendy suspicious. But they are soon at odds again when he reveals his plan to turn an FBI agent, which she thinks is insane. They come together and are pulled apart continually in season three.
AD: I’ve always felt the core of the show’s dynamic is their suspicion towards one another. They need each other, but they are also working against and trying to outsmart each other to get their way.
CM: Well, is there really honor amongst thieves? [Laughs] Can you really trust someone who will break all sorts of laws and norms and ethics? In the first season when they decide to go down this path, they kind of think they’re going to be smarter than everyone, and they’re going to come out unscathed. They are not above these criminals, they are criminals. The mistrust between them is interesting to me because she is really smart and she does have really good ideas. Is Marty just so arrogant that he thinks no one’s ideas can be better than his? Is it because she’s a woman? I’ve never really answered that for myself because there are times when you see those rare moments where they really work together, and you think they are well suited even in this criminal pursuit, but then the distrust bubbles up again. And this horrible thing that happened in front of them at the end of the third season, does that bring them closer together? Wendy had to make an incredible sacrifice with her brother, does that make her resent Marty, or does that bring them together?
AD: When you are cutting for performance, I’ve often noticed that the camera will linger on a character for extra beats as they are thinking their way through an issue. It’s almost like you want us to be aware of the gears grinding in the character’s head.
CM: We are always trying to show the wheels turning as much as we can in one take–lingering on the performer and not necessarily cutting to what they’re looking at. What it does is it engages the viewer. I’ll take an example again from the first season in the second episode: Marty is starting to think, my family might be better off without me. We’re just in up to our eyeballs, and maybe the way out is for me to kill myself. They get the insurance money. They had nothing to do with this. He’s sitting on this cliff in the Ozark eating his lunch and thinking. We were going to cut out at a certain point. You can see the lake in the background, so you don’t need to cut to what he’s looking at.
There’s a nice camera move that kind of goes over his shoulder and looks down. Jason said in the director’s cut let’s stay there longer. We need the audience to understand what Marty is going through in his mind. It’s not just thinking about that big drop. He’s sitting there calculating. Is this a big enough fall to kill me? Will the insurance pay out if it’s a suicide? He’s running the numbers. He’s thinking of all the options. We have to stay in that shot long enough so that the audience processes what he’s thinking.
Jason once said to me casually that if there was a mantra for the show, it was that we wanted to be deliberate, meditative, and hard to get. If you think about that in terms of almost anything in our show, we are not doing anything casually. We always have a plan. We’re letting you think about something and absorb it, but we’re not making it easy for you. We’re not cutting to inserts. We stay on their face. We don’t show you what they’re looking at. You can put it together. Maybe not in that moment–it might be the next scene when Marty shares the information that he got from the text. We don’t spoon feed people. We want them to lean in and try to keep up with us.
AD: You mentioned the opening sequence of the first episode of season three. I love the agitated pacing of this seemingly mundane delivery of a package that turns into a violent scene, then an explosion, then a second explosion, and then the black comedy of cutting to the casino commercial. It’s one hell of a table setter for the season.
CM: There was originally a different scene written for the beginning where these three black navigators were going to come into a cul-de-sac in Mexico and go into one house and find people that were counting money. They were going to kill all of them, not take the money, and blow up the house. It was going to be shot in LA, but we had to build a whole house with landscaping. It was going to be really expensive the way it was planned. So, for the longest time, I just had a card that said “Violence in Mexico” and then the cheesy casino commercial that was completed pretty early on, and then the scene at Byrde Enterprises. There was some thought about just starting with the commercial because that would be funny and ironic after the finale of season two, which I had also cut, with Wendy and Marty in front of the casino taking part in the ribbon cutting ceremony as Marty is realizing that Wendy probably killed Cade.
To start season three with this goofy commercial could be fun. But because we had that card there “Violence in Mexico,” I knew that the plan was to set the stakes really high, which the commercial wouldn’t do, and it wouldn’t give us the book-ending that Chris was planning for at the end of episode ten. So, time was ticking away and then our location department found this mall in Georgia. It needed very little set dressing to look like it could be a shopping center in Mexico, so we shot there. I got all of the mall shots first and cut that together–Jason always shoots with a very definite plan. Then a couple of days later, we got the shots outside where the first bomb goes off and the delivery guy leaves the second bomb in the middle of the crowd. It felt really satisfying that we had not given up on this idea because it just raised the bar so high. Now you know going into every scene after that of the level of danger involved.
AD: The showcasing of violence in the show is very direct and avoids action movie tropes. The scene where Frank Jr. attacks Ruth is so sudden and brutal that you almost feel like you are witnessing a crime in real life–it’s such a shock to the system.
CM: The idea behind the shooting of violence on the show is to make it appropriately impactful and disturbing. I didn’t edit the season opener of season two, but there’s this act of violence where Nelson goes to get a security tape and he goes behind the counter and kills this guy. You’re not actually looking at the violence, and it’s not happening in an action movie kind of way with cut-cut-cut. But it is chilling and it feels so real that it’s more impactful. I always think about that.
The episode you’re talking about when Frank Jr. attacks Ruth, the coverage was actually very simple and beautifully thought out by Alik Sakharov, the director. We know that it’s late at night, we see Ruth come out the front door of the casino and we follow her walking down the boardwalk, and we clearly see she’s alone. Then from out of nowhere comes Frank. We know it’s him–he doesn’t have anything covering his face. It’s a pretty audacious act on his part. The beating is cut very simply. There’s the first punch which lands in a close up. We see him once kicking her from from her point of view and then we just stay on her as he’s delivering these blows and she’s slowly losing consciousness. It’s her point of view of the violence. It’s the experience of being surprised. He doesn’t try to hide who he is. She knows what’s going on, and he needs her to know that he’s the one doing it–sending a message. I didn’t really make that connection until today, but that’s the theme of the season, sending a message. Like when Helen goes to see the therapist and the therapist doesn’t pick up on the message Helen is sending her. She’s not frightened. She asks for more money. And we know what happens to people who don’t get the message on Ozark.
AD: You’ve worked on all three seasons of the show, and Netflix recently announced that the next season would be the last. I know it’s too soon to take a look back, but what has it been like working on this show and knowing it’s coming to an end?
CM: I’ve said this a couple of times in my career where I’m on a show that I really enjoy: They don’t come along that often, because what we do is a craft. It’s an art but it’s also a job and sometimes you’re just making a TV show and other times you’re doing something that you realize means a lot to you. You like the people you do it with and you respect them, and they’re talented, and they’re working at their highest level and…surprise, surprise, the audience likes it! [Laughs] That is really gratifying.
For years I worked on Homicide, and I I called it the ‘critically acclaimed but little watched Homicide.’ I loved working on that show, but there were a lot of people who would ask if that was the David Mamet movie. It just wasn’t on people’s radar. So here I’m on a show that I love working on and people see it. It’s a fabulous experience and it might not happen again for five or ten years, if it ever does. You don’t get a lot of those in your career, so you really have to savor it and enjoy it. For whatever reason these Midwestern money launderers have connected with people and I’m happy to be on the ride with them.
AD: I know the work itself is often its own reward, but getting your fifth Emmy nomination has to be exciting too.
CM: There’s no denying it. The cliche of ‘It’s an honor to be nominated’ really is true. I woke up that morning and was having kind of a slow start to my day. I was out walking the dog, and I thought to call a friend in New York and tell her something, and she said, ‘Are you calling to tell me you were nominated for an Emmy?’ And I was like, oh…is that today? [Laughs] It was a fun surprise, and I think that whenever I talk to an interviewer and at some point they say, this is your fifth nomination, it surprises me to hear that every time. It’s surreal.