Recently, Awards Radar had the chance to speak with editor Susan E. Kim, who is currently getting acclaim for her work on A Small Light. Previously, she’d edited shows like Little America and Pachinko, but this is a whole new level for her. Kim is a big part of why a show like A Small Light gets as highly regarded as it does.
Here is the conversation:
Awards Radar – How did you approach this edit versus a show like Pachinko or Little America?
That’s a really good question! Certain things need to happen on every show, like understanding the script, the approach and the vision. This comes from dialog with the showrunner and directors. It’s also an intuitive process that plays out when I’m working on the edit. Something I think about is how an episode can be broken into its big and small parts, meaning, I try to understand how the pieces fit together – the structure of a scene, story and emotional beats, where important information is revealed and where a character is in their journey. On the other hand, things that can vary from project to project are shooting ratio, achieving tone and style, the nature of the scripts and how the creative leads like to work. For example, on ‘A Small Light,’ so much of the tone came through the script. Because I had a clear sense of this, I was able to build it into my first assembly. We also had a tone meeting between Tony Phelan, Susanna Fogel and the editors and it was useful to know the intentions in each episode and which details Tony was interested in foregrounding. On ‘Pachinko,’ the editing process involved some experimentation for tone. At least, this was true more so as the first episode was getting dialed in and the rest of the episodes were being built alongside it. Soo Hugh sometimes refers to dailies as “clay,” which means we’re sculpting every inch until we get it right. It’s a complex but rewarding undertaking. Something that ‘Pachinko’ and ‘Little America’ have in common is the use of different languages, which adds a lot of complexity to the workflow. Between those two shows, I was cutting in Korean, Japanese, Spanish and Somali! I don’t speak all those languages, by the way, but I think it helped that I grew up in a bilingual household. Editing this way requires leaning into instinct and trusting your ear for intonation. I mean, this is always the case for editors, but the task feels amplified when it’s in a language you don’t speak. You’re still looking for believability and nuance, but there are layers to how you access that. Finally, ‘Little America’ is an anthology series. Each episode had a different learning curve because they were so unique, with totally different filmmakers attached. We were cutting 30 minute episodes, but they were complex, ambitious short films. I loved that challenge!
-What was an example of a creative liberty that you took in telling Miep’s story that also still honored her story?
From working with our showrunners, Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, I know that everything was well researched and they were invested in historical accuracy. That said, a story that’s inspired from real events always has some element of dramatization. An example that comes to mind is the bean spill scene in Episode 6, which I believe Anne Frank writes about in her diary. When editing that sequence, it felt important to amplify the event – not just the sound but the duration of the spill – so we feel the impact of it. We needed to feel it both physically and emotionally. It’s this huge event, a scary moment, because the office is about to open. In other words, I was playing to the psychology. My intention was to heighten the experience for the residents of the Annex, who’ve been so quiet and careful for so long. At the same time, I didn’t want to push it unreasonably far. It still had to be in the realm of plausibility so you weren’t wondering why people didn’t hear it from the street. We make a lot of these kinds of choices as editors. Whether it’s about deciding how long to hold on someone’s look, or how we play out psychological details, it’s really about creating the most evocative experience for the story you’re telling.
-What storytelling elements did you use to make this feel less like a documentary and more of a historic adaptation?
‘A Small Light ‘ was so thoughtfully designed. The cinematography by Stuart Howell and the production design by Marc Homes created this beautiful, composed, cinematic look. Because of the very nature of the footage – and having a solid script, which was the ultimate road map – I never felt that I was editing a documentary. As a picture editor, I use every tool I have to create the world of the show – from crafting nuanced performances, to playing with time and pace, to layering in temp sound design and score. Our show is grounded in the terrific performances by Bel Powley, Joe Cole, Liev Schrieber and the rest of the cast. I see these performances as the heartbeat of the show. Each actor brought their specific choices as artists in order to create this rich tapestry. One of the unique qualities of ‘A Small Light’ – and something that people reach out to me to talk to me about – is its tonal complexity. It covers this great range of drama, terror and action, as well as the humor of everyday life that gets woven into everything. It can definitely be a balancing act to honor the reality of the things being depicted, the real fear, while also embracing these other qualities. I’m proud that the show contains so much complexity.
-What was the biggest challenge in editing the pilot?
The script, and therefore the first assembly, had the episode shifting between past and present. The “past” is Miep’s backstory and the “present” is the bike ride that Miep and Margot take that leads them to the Nazi-guarded bridge. In the editing process, we experimented with this by combining all of the past in one linear sequence of scenes. The challenge was figuring out how to connect all this with the present in an organic way. The scene where Miep and Margot stand before the Nazi-guarded bridge, at the beginning of the episode, needed to suspensefully swell and ask the question “How are they going to get out this?” while also being enough of a moment to trigger our switch to the past. In order to achieve this, Joan asked me to build a new sequence, using what we had. I found a way editorially to do this by reappropriating some footage. We also wrote some new ADR (automated dialogue replacement) so that everything connected. This kind of editorial rewrite is always a challenge but it’s gratifying and exciting when it works. The restructure allowed the timeline to flow in a very clear way that never loses momentum. It also eliminated the need for complicated chyrons with dates and times. Joan and Tony are such confident filmmakers and they really trust their collaborators. I loved working with them. They would offer enough direction so I could dive into the work and come up with possible solutions, and then we would talk about it and improve it together. I’m excited by what we accomplished in order to tell the story in the best way possible.
-What subtleties were you able to bring out of characters like Miep in the edit?
Bel Powley, who plays Miep, was a dream to edit. Her instincts as an actor are phenomenal and, as an editor, you can see she’s always making clear choices. Because she’s such a strong listener, I also felt she was constantly making discoveries along the way. As Miep, Bel frequently had this challenge of needing to shift gears. One moment she’d be telling a joke, and in the next, she’d move into a totally different space, like fear. There are many examples of this, of her holding the complexity of experience, instead of just playing one note. In the Pilot, take the scene in which she and Margot are standing in front of the bridge. I was very aware of Miep’s perspective here. The scene required building both internal and external terrors – internally, Miep is freaking out because she knows this is life or death. She clocks the Nazi’s gun and it’s a visual cue about what they’re up against. At the same time, she needs to externally hold it together. So, I aimed to build a counterpoint to her fear, a shift to another register in order to deal with Margot. She needed to express a sharpness, a forced confidence. It’s true that different shots, framings and durations, have varying emotional frequencies. When we’re in her internal space, I could hold longer on Miep’s face and there was more of a suspension of time. Whereas when she’s talking to Margot, it plays more in real time. At least, that was my logic as I worked. I wanted there to be a distinction between all these places that Miep emotionally travels in the scene. To be clear, I didn’t have to manufacture things in the edit from nothing. Because I was given this rich material from Bel, it was possible to craft performances with subtlety. I think this is what makes editing so fascinating. Sometimes, it’s possible to bend time in order to achieve an emotional effect. Sometimes, it happens in a matter of frames. Ultimately, many of these choices play out on a subconscious and intuitive level. It’s interesting to put it into words now, but when I’m actually working, I try not to over-intellectualize. You can really get in your own way if you do too much of that when you’re editing!
-What was the most important thing you learned about Miep, the Franks and/or this time period from researching this project?
It was insightful to learn that Miep Gies was an immigrant. She was sent over from Austria and adopted by a Dutch family when she was eleven. She’d been a sickly child and this gave her another chance to have a better life. She ended up staying in Amsterdam permanently. This really stayed with me. I thought about Miep’s mother who had to let her go and how hard that must have been. Episode 3 gets into some of this history. It made me think about the ways in which each of us are imprinted with lessons in empathy and how this must have set a profound foundation for Miep. I was also very moved by Miep’s humility. She never set out to be a hero, or to be recognized in that way. This is embodied in her now-famous quote, from which we get our show’s name. Miep said, “But even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.” The instinct to make Miep’s efforts relatable come from Miep herself and the show aims to honor this. Who else can step forward to stand up for people who are violently targeted? If even an “ordinary secretary” can, why not you or me? These lessons are relevant today. We’re still dealing with such violence and anti-Semitism. Thanks to Miep, we have her remarkable example of a path forward.