With your heart on your sleeve: the Editing team of Euphoria on Season 2

After a critically acclaimed and much discussed Season 1, Euphoria returned with a bang for its second season to become HBO’s second most watched show after Game of Thrones. Based on an Israeli miniseries of the same name, the American adaptation, run by Sam Levinson, does not shy away from the complexities surrounding its controversial topics. Euphoria is always pushing itself to evolve, while also striving to deepen and expand the humanity of its characters.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Julio C. Perez IV, ACE, Laura Zempel, Nikola Boyanov, and Aaron I. Butler, ACE, who comprised the Emmy nominated editing team of Euphoria’s second season (note: the Euphoria editing team actually won their Emmy in the past couple of weeks). Their easy rapport showcased a group that truly cares for each other and gives everything they can into a show that means a lot to them. We were able to discuss the specific roles that Evercast played during post production, working on a show with such a maximalist palette, how expectations of Season 1 informed Season 2 and much more.

Let’s talk about how it was editing Season 1 versus Season 2.

Julio C. Perez IV: It’s funny because I thought they seemed like two very different experiences but the stress levels and demands were actually extremely similar. We had a slight shift in the team, Season One had the remarkable talents of Harry Yoon, who had a terrific project he went onto. So Season Two had the magnificent talents of Aaron Butler.

I’d say collectively, and this is perhaps a funny way to frame it, but we got more lunches during Season 2. Which might sound trivial to some but it helped us get to know each other. It solidified an interpersonal dynamic where we learned everyone's aesthetics, what each of us liked, what we hated, how to work together, and I think that all helped. It’s also really beautiful to sit and laugh together for a little while.

Aaron I. Butler: Coming together for those lunches created a personal bond that flowed into a creative bond because we knew each other so well. It makes it easier to collaborate with a friend who you enjoy spending time with. At first I thought it was unusual, I was like “wow, we have really long lunches”.  But it paid off, the team became so close and also had a venue to talk about what we were working on and our challenges.

Practical question, when did post start and end?

Perez: It started beginning of April 2021 and it ended for me mid-February 2022.

How much was in-person versus remote?

Perez: The editing team was all in-person. We got tested for COVID at least weekly, sometimes daily. We tested a lot. We wanted to have that interpersonal dynamic. But there were a lot of upsides to remote work as well.

Laura Zempel: Yeah, we predominantly used Evercast for other departments like sound and music. Our very talented composer, Labrinth, was in London for the beginning of the season. So we heavily used Evercast to get everyone from the other departments together once we locked a cut. It let us go through everything, play music, sound effects, talk with mixers, etc. Because we did have limits on how many people we wanted in the room at one time. We prioritized having editorial together because we wanted all of the editors and assistants working in-person but we had masks on when we were in each other’s rooms. For the finishing processes, we also relied on Evercast to get all the different departments together.

Nikola Boyanov: We also used Evercast for FX spotting sessions, especially early on before people were more welcome in the cutting room. We’d meet with our FX team for sessions and mark things on the screen. It was a useful way to do that work.

Sounds like it was helpful, almost like a connective tissue between departments.

Perez: I’d say it was a very critical connective tissue with some of our primary collaborators. And let me add that also used Evercast for cutting Sam’s film Malcolm & Marie and that was very useful. That was very early days of the pandemic, therefore a lot more unknown, so we played it safe. No visits to each other’s homes or rooms. We were separated during the whole process and we used Evercast for that.

How is it dealing with the expectations of such a popular show? Do they play into how the show pushes itself?

Perez: I had a lot of conversations with Sam about it, we weren’t blind to the fact that the first season made some ripples. We were interested in zagging while others were zigging. So Sam wanted to redefine the look, evolving towards a new sort of exploration. He did it from a fundamental level, talking to costuming, makeup, and using Ektachrome and other Kodak 35mm products. They wanted it to spiritually still be Euphoria but with a sense of evolution. This was something we were very cognizant of and wanted to reinforce at every level, including editorially.

Can someone speak to your working relationship with Sam, how do scripts and edits evolve?

Zempel: Sam writes all of the scripts and directed every episode in Season 2, so we don’t have a lot of access to him while he’s shooting. The way our department works is we have Julio, who is our supervising editor.

Sorry to interrupt, but since Sam’s directing everything, is the show blockshot?

Zempel: Yeah, this season was essentially blockshot where we did the first four episodes in the first block and then the last four in the second block. Production had two weeks down in between blocks, while editorial kept working. This meant we were getting footage for multiple episodes everyday, balancing what was coming in and who was going to be cutting that. 

The way our department works is, Julio is our supervising editor, and we all had episodes that we shepherd. So if something came in for 203 or 206, I’d hop on it, assemble the scenes, and have Julio look at them after I had a cut together. Julio acted as a proxy for Sam with us when Sam was on set or writing. So we'll go long stretches of working with Julio and then send those off to Sam while he’s still shooting. It’s great because then some of the choices we make in editorial can inform how he’s working on set. If something’s working, if something isn’t, we have the freedom to adjust while they’re still in production, which is wonderful. Then once production wraps, Sam comes in with us, and we buckle down to more finely tune the episodes to his taste. The other great thing about Sam is he’s not precious about his scripts. Even though he’s the writer, he allows us to reorder scenes and cut lines. He wants the episodes as good as possible and puts a lot of trust into us.

Perez: He really thrives on our interpretation of certain scenes and passages of the script. He enjoys seeing it. I mean, we may not always advance it in quite the way he wanted, but he’s an experimentalist. Sam likes to be in a laboratory, creatively speaking. So he really gets a kick out of seeing our inventiveness and what we can do with a scene. And we definitely honor his writing, but if we have a little inspiration for a way to amplify or re-interpret a scene, he’s always excited to see it.

Speaking of experimentalism, can you talk about working on a show with such a maximalist palette?

Perez: I just want to say one little thing and then hand it off to Aaron who might have fun answering this. Sometimes more is more. We’re happy with our extravagance, we know there’s certain sections of our show that we’re interested in its bombast and scope. We also like the fact that we can then do a U-turn and land in a scene that calls for tremendous patience and restraint. There ends up being this delicate emotional thread that we’re trying to get through in a very heartfelt scene. We’re fond of being able to play with the intense dynamics of the high highs and low lows. And on top of that, it’s representational of the way a teenager can view their day-to-day life. You know, Tuesday is the worst day ever and then Wednesday is the best day ever. A little thing happens and it feels huge. Aaron, want to jump in?

Butler: Sure, I think Euphoria can be a shapeshifter on the surface, but we always go for that emotional core. We’re in love with these characters and pour that love into them. So no matter how crazy or stylistic things get, we don’t want to do style just for the sake of it. We want the style to add meaning, emotions, complexity, layers. The emotional core is what’s most important to us. So yes, sometimes it gets crazy but other times we’ll just hold on one shot and hold and hold and hold, where the audience’s emotions are increasing and increasing and increasing. Doing that, in a different way, is also kind of maximalist in the sense that it’s emotional maximalism even if it’s not a visual bombast. That’s the core of our show, we’re always looking for the heart and humor in often dark and crazy situations.

How is it working on such a character-driven show where their hearts are almost always exposed like a raw nerve?

Boyanov: As Aaron mentioned, we’re such a character-driven show, so every time you jump into a scene, it’s a new emotion you’re trying to tackle depending on where the character is at. As you approach it, you try to figure out everything they’re feeling and you try to feel that as well and build that into the scene. For example, there’s a scene in 207 where Nate’s having a nightmare, and Nate’s a character we generally don’t like because he’s always up to bad things, but as you begin to learn about how he grew up and the insecurities he has, you begin to relate to him a little more. 

Perez: Yeah, I have tons of silly sayings, and one of them is “character is queen.” Our foundation starts with the characterization of who the characters are. They become companions to us, we fall in love with them, even the Nates of the world, but we especially adore Rue, Lexi and Fezco. As an editor, you do everything you can to enrich the character. There’s a lot of nuances and details and searching for microexpressions or certain magnetic stretches of dialogue delivery. If you stitch those together in the right way, I feel like our warmth and the way we cherish a character reaches out of the screen and hopefully warms the audience too. For a show as challenging as it can be subject matter-wise, having a warmth and love of the characters can make it more tense at times but it can also help you get through some of those darker stretches.

Sounds like there’s a lot of empathy, even if you may not always agree with a character's actions.

Perez: Absolutely. As much as we all like to think we walk down a virtuous path, you put a magnifying glass on anyone’s life and you could probably point out a few things that were not so great. For each of us that has a sense of loyalty like Fezco, we might also have the rationalizing of a Cassie or the aggression of a Nate. I think it’s absolutely built in a way to display the human element. And you’re right, we’re not making excuses for bad behavior but whether you make excuses or not, that behavior exists. People make bad decisions, and very often, you make worse decisions when you’re young. I think story without characterization is impossible. You could have the most exciting plot in the world, but if you have zero attachment to your main character, then people sign off.

Do you have any mental health practices for working on a show that can get pretty dark?

Butler: I had a very interesting experience editing some of these storylines because both of my parents struggled with drug addiction. So editing Rue with her family, especially when shit hits the fan and she goes through a full breakdown, reminded me so much of my childhood. There were definitely times where I had to cry in the edit bay because it hurt but I also used that as a compass. Like when I’m watching dailies and there's a take that hurts me because it reminds me of what I went through. Rue breaking down the door, brought me back to a situation from my childhood where we had to get a restraining order against my mom and she was knocking on our door and we had to call the police on her. I found that I did need therapy and the show was really helpful actually because it brought up a lot of issues I hadn’t thought about in years and having it come back into my life made me take some time to process them. Sometimes we’d talk about this stuff at lunch or with friends and family. I’d talk with my brother about how the show is bringing up a lot of stuff for me where we’d talk about my mom and everything she went through.

Her addiction eventually killed her, so I also have that connection with Rue. All the scenes with her dad and feeling that loss. I think we all tap into our own personal experiences and feel emotions we’ve felt before and then pour that into the edit and into these characters so those emotional truths really resonate. When dealing with material this hard you have to talk about it, you’ve got to let it out and sometimes you’ve got to cry. We all have different life experiences we put into our work and I think it makes for a stronger, more emotional product. There’s a huge amount of our audience who are like “I’ve never seen drug addiction portrayed so realistically as this show,” whether they were an addict or know an addict. Hopefully that’s a sign we channeled those emotions into something powerful while at the same time, trying to take care of ourselves too.

Perez: It’s deeply moving whenever we hear from someone who says they finally feel seen, feel less alone, thanking us for a show that not only depicts the addict with a sense of humanity but also showing the collateral damage that can occur to those close to the addict. It’s also tricky because you can’t have a show be therapy. Therapy is therapy. But to humanize and engage with these trials and tribulations, in an artful medium, I think gives us, as viewers, a sense of transcendence and helps us deal with feelings in a way that’s special in its own right. Hearing about people who feel less alone in the world, to me, that’s one of the deepest rewards of working on Euphoria.

I’ve also personally had struggles with anxiety and have people who are very close to me that struggle with different mental disorders. I think it’s one of those things this country has swept under the rug for far too long and I’m thrilled to have a show that is not just an aesthetic experience. I mean, we’re not doing it for a message alone, but in that experience it’s amazing to strive together to achieve something better for us in our world. Stoke conversations about addiction, the human costs of it, and the social and human cost of mental illness. It’s a profoundly moving and rewarding thing to be a part of. 

I know it has been noted that some French New Wave music appears during Lexi’s play. It feels like the visual palette of the whole show is a descendant of French New Wave and other European cinema. For example, there were Kieślowski scores I picked up on as well. Can you talk about these influences and why you think they work for Euphoria?

Perez: Kieślowski is a major influence on me and Sam. We connected not only on horror films and some very trashy cinema, but also the Three Colours Trilogy and other films by him. We also enjoy elements of Showgirls. So it’s a varied palette but I’ll pass it to Laura to talk more about how she landed on the French New Wave for 207.

Zempel: Yeah, 207 was so much different than the other episodes because it’s rooted around Lexi. She’s our narrator, whereas every other episode it’s Rue. So it had to feel like a peek into what she’s going through, starting with the montage where she says “I feel like I lived most of my life in my imagination,” which is our cue for how Lexi sees herself. Then the way Lexi pictures her life is shown to our audience through her play, so we wanted to create something that felt like her. We built the montage and I put in that Francis Lai cue, which has an earnestness that we felt fit Lexi because she’s so pure and optimistic and heartfelt and her motivations are a little more on her sleeve than some of our other characters. There were other options, but that one we really responded to and then we expanded on that idea as well, like “what if we do that for this whole episode?” Which influenced the idea of putting the overture at the beginning, which was not in the script. And the great thing about French New Wave is it’s so cinematic and sweeping which mirrors Labrinth’s music in a way, while still making the episode feel distinct from the others.

So once we put that in, it also started to blur the lines of where the music is coming from. Is it the speakers in Lexi’s play? Or is it score to underpin the emotions we want the audience to be feeling? The whole episode blurs fantasy with reality. Are we seeing Marta and Hallie on stage, or are we seeing Cassie and Maddie? We’re playing with expectations and the music had this beautiful, tender way of doing that as well.

As we wrap up, I have two final questions. First, I’d like you to pick a favorite moment from one of your colleagues' episodes.  

Perez: I’ll start off real quick. Nik, as you mentioned Nate’s nightmare, I was so astonished by how creepy it was and I was trying to figure out notes to give him, which I usually give some pretty nit-picky extensive notes to everybody, and I had no notes. It went through on the first pass.

Butler: I’ve got a Laura sequence. The prologue in 203, where we see Cal’s flashback with his unrequited love. I was excited to see that from the first time I read the script and she put it together so beautifully. Then at the end when they finally come together for their kiss, I’m getting goosebumps talking about it, I just cried. I loved how beautifully she put that together. In high school, I had a similar crush on my best friend and she just nailed it.

Zempel: Thank you. I want to jump in and say my favorite Aaron one is the opening of 205, which is the fight with Rue and her mom and then we find out Jules and Elliot have been there the whole time. The way it’s put together gives me chills thinking about it, it’s so tense. And I know how hard it was to get, I remember all the time you spent on it, cutting it down, and refining it. It just plays so well. It’s so emotional and so tense and there’s no music, it’s just the performances. It’s so riveting, I love it.

Butler: I’m going to cry.

Nik, you have to say something nice about Julio now.

Boyanov: This is great because I’ve worked with Julio for years as his assistant editor. We’ve worked together since like 2016. So getting to give him some props is great. There’s so many but I’ll go with the prologue from 201, the whole opening sequence of young Fezco and his grandma. Especially because we were on set for that. It was happening on the fly, we were getting footage from camera and cutting it on the spot with Sam and producers all coming by. All the while, Julio is managing to put together this intricate and beautiful sequence. It was marvelous to watch the skill and attention that goes into that. It’s such a strong opening to the season and sets the tone that Euphoria is back but in a different way. It’s not what you got in season one and this whole season’s gonna be something you weren’t expecting.

Finally, what are you watching that you’re loving right now?

Butler: We’ve been watching The Rehearsal on HBO and we’re enjoying it so much. As Julio likes to say, “it’s like a reality show as high art.” I just love the show within a show within a show and when you think it can’t get more ridiculous, it gets more and more ridiculous.

Boyanov: I would’ve also gone with The Rehearsal, but since Aaron said it I’ll go with Everything Everywhere All at Once. I thought it was a great film and so powerful. It’s a movie that actually makes you feel something and I appreciate that about it.

Zempel: Mine’s a little bit of an older film but I just saw The Big Chill for the first time. The way they balance tone with grief and humor with all of the different characters actually kind of reminded me of Euphoria, where everyone is bringing something to the table and how they interact with the humor and the darkness. I was in awe of that film when I watched it.

Perez: That’s a good one. Baby boomer touchstone. I’m going to choose two-- one high, one low. On the high side, I watched a Criterion Blu-ray of I Knew Her Well, which I’d never seen before and it’s a perfect companion for La Dolce Vita. It’s an astonishing black and white film shot in the same era. It’s also good to watch with Mamma Roma. Then on the low side, a highly underrated film from a critical stance is Critters. It feels somewhere between Spielberg and Joe Dante.

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