Better Call Saul, Fargo and Breaking Bad editor Skip Macdonald on cutting classic TV and more

Skip Macdonald is a Primetime Emmy and three-time ACE Eddie award-winning editor known for cutting legendary shows Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul and Fargo. Here he talks to Mandy News about how he got started, editing workflows and working on some of the most popular TV shows in recent history.

25th January 2018
/ By James Collins

Skip Macdonald – editor of Better Call Saul SKIPMACDONALD

Please tell us how you got involved in the film industry and editing.
My father was an editor and my grandfather was also in the business. He was a light technician. I followed in my father’s footsteps, that’s how I got interested in it.

Did you study the skill or was it something that you were taught within the family?
It was within the family. I never went to school for it. I caught the bug early on when I was able to go into work with my father, when he was working on the weekends. I found that fascinating as a kid.

How did you get involved with Better Call Saul? If it was through Breaking Bad itself then how did you get involved with that show initially?
I actually got involved through Breaking Bad. I had a friend involved in the show and they said they might be looking for someone, so they called me up and I got to meet Vince. We had a nice long conversation and they brought me in to work on Breaking Bad. Since then, it’s been a great relationship with Vince and continuing work with Better Call Saul through Breaking Bad.

Did you know about the show before you got involved with Breaking Bad?
Yes, I knew about the show, but when I got involved the pilot hadn’t even aired yet. Through an acquaintance, I was able to come in and talk with them and I was able to see the pilot, which was just an amazing piece of cinema at that point. It was something so different and so unusual to see on television that I was fascinated with it. 

Hearing Vince’s ideas and thoughts about the series, it sounded like something I really wanted to work on.

Congratulations on that, and for the nomination on Better Call Saul.
For a show spinning off from another successful show, to me it’s incredible how well received it is. There are people who watch the show but haven’t seen Breaking Bad, and are just in love with the characters like I fell in love with them on Breaking Bad. It’s a spinoff that you don’t need to see the original in order to enjoy.

Having worked on both of the shows, what do you feel was the difference in approaching Better Call Saul?
That’s the writers’ and the producers’ end of things. I came in after the scripts had been written. Visually they tried to change the style up a little bit so it had a different feel, but they still wanted it to be in that Breaking Bad world, but set itself apart a little bit. The scripts and the storylines, the writers work through that stuff and they decide which way they want to take it.

I think Saul is quirky, he’s a likeable guy. He’s very funny and yet he’s very serious at times. It’s a process that they worked very hard to create and they did a fantastic job on it.

What kind of coverage and dailies do you get on Better Call Saul?
We get lots of coverage. They encourage the directors to get lots of coverage, different angles and things that you normally wouldn’t see. They would like them to try things and we get the standard coverage but there’s always these unique shots and stuff that they always encourage everybody to try and get, so it has that stand out look that’s just a little different from most shows.

It does appear a lot of the time that it’s single camera. Is that the case or is it multiple camera, like a lot of American shows?
It’s considered a single camera show but there are times when they will shoot two cameras together. But we still use it and work it like it is just totally single camera.

What is it like working with Vince Gilligan? Is he with you doing edits all the time, is it the individual directors who work on the episodes? How does it all work?
When I finish getting dailies and I get my cut done, there’s four days we get with the directors. Once the directors finish their cut, then Vince will come in and we will work through it. We take four or five days and go through scene by scene, discuss it and get what his vision is, aside from what the directors have brought to us. So we do work with Vince on daily basis.

So does that mean that the rough turnaround on an edit is just over a week?
From the day I get my last day of dailies, I get two days to turn my cut over to the director and then we work with the director for four days, and then it goes over to the producers. It’s a quick turnaround.

Are you shooting and editing shows whilst the series is on, or is it a show that’s shot before it’s aired entirely?
This one, if we’re not finished we’re very close to finishing the last two or three episodes once it starts to air. We’re not pushing to get things rushed through so they can air. Generally, we get the time that we need, and we’ve got a lot of them finished before they start airing.

What do you usually cut on?
The system we use is the Avid system.

Is that a preference of yours or of Vince’s?
That’s a preference of mine, definitely. In LA it’s the preference of most people. On the previous shows Vince was working, I believe it was with the Avid.

What do you think about all the advances that have been made recently into editing programs and such?
I think it’s great. It gives me more creativity to do things and try things. It makes it easier to do that. Before, you’d have to struggle to get things done. Now things do become a little more easy. Then again, the downside of it is people expect a lot more out of us because of all the advances.

I suppose you get a lot more footage handed to you?
Yes. Now that everybody’s shooting in digital, we get so much more footage than we did when it was film based productions.

Having come to it through your family and through your father being an editor and such, I should imagine you would have begun cutting using film?
Yes, that’s correct.

Do you still get the chance to use film or do you still have a passion towards cutting film in any way?
I don’t think anybody has actually cut film for years here. Very few productions. Most television productions are all digital now. There’s very little film being used, and over the last 15, maybe 20 years if they shot film they always transferred it over so you could cut it digitally on an Avid or whatever systems that people preferred at that time.

You mention that you’re back filming the next season of Better Call Saul. Other than that, what’s next for you? What else are you working on in 2018 and beyond?
At the moment, I don’t know, because I’ve just started this and I haven’t started to see what else is out there. I did just finish up on an HBO show for Alan Ball which will be coming out here in February called Here and Now, which stars Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter. I’m hoping that when Better Call Saul wraps up and we get a season 2 of Here and Now, and I will be going back to that. If not, I will see what else is going to arrive, but I don’t know at the moment.

You’ve worked on so many amazing shows that I’m sure there will be no shortage of people who will be wanting to use your amazing skills!
I hope so!

If you have any advice or tips for up and coming editors, people wanting to get into the game itself or wanting to graduate from assistant editing into editing, what would you say to them?
Get what you can. Take any job you can to get your foot in the door. See what you like. There’s so many different varieties of shows out there now, between the reality shows and the resurgence of game shows, the comedy shows and drama and stuff. Get your foot in the door, work on something, see what you like. At least then you’re in and you can move around.

Be persistent. As an assistant, let your editor know what you’re looking for, what you want to do. Hopefully, you’ll get an editor that will teach you and give you scenes to cut, and groom you and show you how to do it. The art of teaching people is slowly going away because there’s so many people out there, and so much product, that people don’t get the chance and the opportunity to learn how to cut a show. If you can find somebody who will mentor you, go with them.

Keep in touch with all your contacts and let them know what you’re up to and when you’re looking for work. Be persistent about it, and if it’s something you love, just stay with it and things will happen.