'You’ve got to just be shooting' Veep and Curb Your Enthusiasm editor Roger Nygard on cutting comedy
Roger Nygard is a two-time Primetime Emmy-nominated editor known for his brilliant work on Curb Your Enthusiasm, The League and the latest series of Veep, for which he is ACE Eddie award nominated – along with Gennady Fridman – for his work on the episode Chicklet. Mandy News sat down with Roger to find out how he got his start, what differences there are between cutting comedy and drama and what editors can do to get their work noticed.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in the industry.
I’m a filmmaker. As a filmmaker, when you set out, you have to learn how to do everything because you can’t afford to hire anybody. One of the many things I learned is editing, among shooting and writing and directing and whatever it took. Over time, as I edited my own productions, people started to notice.
Eventually, a director called Mike Binder saw one of my films called Suckers, which was about a car salesman. He very much liked the editing style so he was the first to offer me a job editing something that wasn’t my own project. That’s where I got my start as an editor, working with Mike on an HBO TV series called The Mind of The Married Man.
From that point on, I got offers from other people. I’ve had a lot of experience now among all my other jobs in the film industry – a lot of editing jobs.
Did you do filmmaking at college or university, or did you just gravitate towards it?
When I was about seven years old, I found my father’s 8mm movie camera. It had half a roll of film in it that he hadn’t shot yet. In those days, 8mm film was actually 16mm film, which you had to turn over halfway through and then you’d send it in for developing. They’d split it down the middle and send it back to you as two 8mm strips.
I took it and started shooting. That’s where I started. I’ve never stopped since.
Were you a writer and a director before editing? Or was it something you learned because they were things you needed to do?
Well you have to be a writer because nobody’s going to give you a script. When you start out, you need your own ideas. By definition, you have to be a writer and a director, and whatever it takes, so I’ve been writing my own projects.
I made seven independent features; four are documentaries and the others are narratives. I’ve now worked in television, of course, where I’ve done directing and editing. It’s overlapped because I started out as a little 7-year-old filmmaker. It hasn’t changed much since I was seven.
When you’re cutting film or TV, does it differ much from comedy to documentary or drama?
Drama and comedy editors fit within different niches. In my opinion, it’s far more difficult to edit comedy. Comedy is more related to action than it is to drama. It’s all about timing, and sometimes it comes down to a frame. One frame difference makes it funny, or not funny. It’s very easy for a viewer to judge if it’s funny. You can tell if a comedy editor is good or bad because it’s either funny or not funny.
Whereas with an editor of drama, you can slide. It’s still dramatic even if you’re sloppy or maybe not as experienced or whatever. You can still get by. It can still stand up. But with comedy, if it isn’t right there, if you aren't razor sharp, it’s very clear.
We interviewed David J. Miller (Veep cinematographer) a few weeks ago. Do you work closely with him or closer with the director when you’re editing a Veep episode?
Television is pretty similar across all of the series. First of all, the DP has almost no interaction with the editing room. He delivers well-shot, in-focus, well-lit, beautiful footage and then he moves on. It varies depending on the director but, generally, the directors spend a day or two in the editing room giving you some things that you might have missed. They adjust the flow of a scene or change takes. Whatever it is that they see.
It’s all about the show runner or the executive producer. It’s his or her show. They come in and they spend a week or so, whatever it takes, fine-tuning an episode. It’s their creative energy that is ultimately what steers the ship.
Do you have a set time to turn around an episode of Veep? What is that time frame?
Yes, our post-production supervisor makes a schedule and often tears her hair out when we don’t stick to it. It’s not quite as crucial because there’s more leeway time, versus a network TV show like Grey’s Anatomy, which I’m working on now, where they make 24 episodes per season and they have to get them out of the assembly line by a certain point. That forces the producer and everyone else to stick to the schedule.
On a show like Veep, or Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is an even better example, I worked on three seasons of it. We spend as much time as Larry David wants to spend finishing and finessing an episode. Typically, it’s about two weeks for Curb Your Enthusiasm. There’s a whole week where Larry will sit and watch all the footage with you and give you all his thoughts and then another week to fine-tune it or finesse it or cut it down to time.
How did Curb Your Enthusiasm come along?
Because I worked on the HBO series The Mind of The Married Man, that kept me on the radar of the people in post at HBO. At one point, they lost an editor very early in Season 6. I got a phone call while I was in India shooting footage for one of my documentaries, The Nature of Existence – it’s a comedy about existentialism, if you can imagine – and I was asked if I was available to meet with Larry David.
I said I was in India and not available, but that I would be back in two or three weeks if the position was still open. When I got back to Los Angeles, the position was still open. From what I heard, Larry had met with several editors and they had not hired anybody yet, so I went in.
I went to the set where they were shooting, and the producers took me into a trailer. We were waiting for Larry, chit-chatting. Larry finally showed up between takes. I think the meeting lasted, at most, four or five minutes. He walked in and said, “Why do you want to work on this show?” I said, “I want to learn from you, Larry.” He said, “You can’t learn anything from me.”
We talked a little bit about Mike Binder because Mike had been on Curb Your Enthusiasm as well. They overlapped shooting at the time. Then he turned to the producers and said, “he seems fine,” and walked out. They offered me the job.
I found out later that Larry works to a large extent from his instinct. Whether it’s casting or airing somebody, he just gets a feeling and then goes with it. So apparently, I gave him a good instinct. His radar gave me a thumbs up, whereas maybe several other people didn’t for some reason, and I got the job.
That’s a great story! With Curb Your Enthusiasm, there is quite a large amount of ad-libbing. Does that affect the way you edit? Your takes must be very different from a drama!
It’s very different from scripted shows, or circle takes shows. With Curb Your Enthusiasm, and also on the show I worked on after that called The League, which was produced by one of the writer/producers from Curb Your Enthusiasm, Jeff Schaffer.
They had the same style. They would write at most about a paragraph for every scene, which outlines the flow of the story for that scene: what’s at stake, what’s the conflict, who’s annoying whom, and maybe throw in a couple of suggestions or ideas for lines of dialogue within the paragraph and that’s it. Then the actors would improvise.
The story is not improvised at all. The story is fully fleshed out from start to finish; you can’t improvise a story, but the dialogue and how you get there is improvised. As an editor, I would approach each scene from the back. I would look at the last scene first and cut that into the scene, and then work my way backwards, realising or figuring that they had arrived at something by the end.
Most of the gold or the good stuff, was in the later take.
Was that something that you decided you were going to do when you went to Curb Your Enthusiasm, or something that you were told by the producers/previous editors?
Part of it is either you’ve got it or you don’t: either you know what’s funny or you don’t; either you know what Larry David’s going to like or you don’t. That’s the starting point.
The second thing is, I’ve done a lot of work in my own documentaries where you’re building a story or creating a scene out of real footage, which is obviously what reality TV shows have evolved from. It’s a matter of your storytelling instincts and abilities, especially with Curb Your Enthusiasm or The League.
As an editor you have to build the scene and make it work from a disparate group of pieces that they’ve created and try different things. Often pieces are missing or they didn’t realise that they didn’t cover the setup very well. You figure it out in the editing room. You’re a storyteller.
It’s different from Grey's Anatomy, where I don’t have to create story at all, I just have to make the best version of the story that’s already heavily scripted. They want it exactly as scripted. With Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry was open, and in The League, Jeff Schaffer was open to my best take, and that’s what I would deliver. Then when they stepped into the room, we would take it from there.
You might notice if you watch Curb, a lot of lines are often delivered over the back of Larry head, where we would spend a lot of time not in improving the punchlines but improving the setups, because they would forget a setup or they would miss something. Larry’s theory of comedy is that the setup is oftentimes more important than the punchline, because if you miss that setup, the punchline’s not going to land anyway.
Could you tell us how you led on from The League to Crashing to actually getting onto Veep, where you’ve been nominated for an award at the American Cinema Editors awards ceremony?
Armando created Veep and at one point he said “Okay I’m done, I’ve enjoyed what I can get out of this and it’s time to move on," which I think is a British way of approaching television series more so than Americans, who will beat every last dollar out of a dead cow in any way they can.
HBO felt and, Armando agreed, that there was more life in the show, but it was time for a new show runner. Dave Mandel was brought on board with the approval of Julia, because she had worked with him before on Seinfeld. Dave Mandel also worked with Larry David, Jeff Schaffer and Alec Berg, they were the three writers who worked on Curb Your Enthusiasm in the three seasons I was there, so that’s how I know those guys.
I often am one of the first to get a phone call when either one of them gets a TV show, because of our experience and work together on Curb Your Enthusiasm. I got the call when Dave came to take over Veep in Los Angeles. The production was moved there.
For any of these shows, do you ever work on set or is it always after the production that they pass on things to you?
Almost always, I’m not on set. My time is best spent sorting through what they deliver to me after shooting. Occasionally it’s a little different, where being on set is helpful. There was an episode of Veep where Catherine, Selina’s daughter, was shooting – all throughout the season – this documentary for school. She’s in film school.
They decided that one episode would be the result of her documentary. Being a documentarian, Dave leaned on me a little more for thoughts and advice and suggestions on how to present that episode as her documentary. I spent more time in production and offering some suggestions before shooting and while shooting, so that they could deliver to me footage that I could then turn into a realistic feeling documentary.
That’s really interesting!
That was the most challenging episode of all the episodes I’ve cut, because it was so different. And Dave Mandel had never made a documentary. I’m really pleased with the way it’s turned out and I know that it’s the favourite on IMDb at the moment.
Congratulations! There are so many Seinfeld links – are you a fan of Seinfeld?
Yes, I was. It was one of many very funny television shows. I became aware of Larry David more so and he’s become a comedic icon, which is why I told him, only half-joking, “I want to see what I can learn from you.” It’s like working for Phil Silvers, if I had been around when he was in his heyday.
I watched a lot of comedy. Comedy’s always been my favourite thing as a viewer, when I was a kid and growing up. Comedy and action and science-fiction. Among all my projects, comedy is the through line. Even the documentaries, all my documentaries tend to be very funny. I guess it’s just what I like. I like to find the humour in humanity and then I apply that to cutting television as well.
That’s a really good ethos to have.
I like to laugh. Life is a bitch so I like to laugh as much as possible. I surround myself with funny people and try to make my projects funny so I can entertain myself.
If you can laugh while you work, you’ve won. What’s coming up next for you? You mentioned you were working on Grey’s Anatomy at the moment.
Yes, it’s my first season with Grey’s Anatomy. I was about to go back to the final season of Veep but they had to postpone a couple weeks after shooting because Julia had a cancer diagnosis and had to take a health hiatus. Apparently they discovered it early and her prognosis is excellent, so they’re planning to come back and shoot that season later this year. That will very likely be next.
I’m also working on my current documentary, which is about marriage. That’s the latest sacred cow up for dissection. I plan to finish that in the next few months. Who knows beyond that – anything could happen.
The documentary, is it planned for showing on any particular network that we can look forward to seeing it on?
It will be available on my website at some point – rogernygard.com – or thenatureofexistence.com, my previous documentary. But first, the usual plan is to take it to film festivals and then plan the distribution from there.
What advice for up-and-coming editors and filmmakers do you have?
So much advice! I should fill up a book some day with advice. If I’ve got to keep it short, the first piece of advice is "Why aren’t you doing it?" If you haven’t been making films, you’re not going to be a filmmaker. No matter what department you gravitate towards, just start shooting and editing and writing, whatever it takes. If you can’t afford it, shoot what you can afford. Maybe it’s a one minute comedy or short film. Whatever it takes, you’ve got to just be shooting.
What motivates me is I was lucky to have a mother who thought that whatever I did was brilliant, so whenever I brought home my badly scrawled artwork from first grade or kindergarten, she would tell me "This is wonderful, you’re amazing, you’re so creative!" So I thought I was creative. I thought I was good because she told me I was. A child’s brain is solidifying around that age. What that did to my framework was that I’m creative and I’m good. Whether it’s true or not. I’m probably partly delusional in that I think what I do is good, because that's the framework that my mother put into me.
Even now, as I create, write, produce, deliver something, and when people react to it, if they don’t like it my first instinct isn’t "Oh I’m not good enough". My first instinct is, "They don’t get it. I know I’m good because my mother told me I was good." That’s not conscious but it’s my natural inclination and that’s what keeps me going.
A lot of famous people have said, you only fail when you give up. As long as you keep trying and making whatever it is you do a little better, it’ll get noticed.