A Philadelphia native and American Film Institute Conservatory alumnus, Eric Litman began his career as an assistant editor working with some incredibly talented directors, including Michael Bay, Paul Haggis, and Curtis Hanson.
Litman has worked on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, as well as cult favorite shows such as Charmed, Black Sails, and Magnum P.I. While the world was experiencing the COVID pandemic, Litman was in the editing bay focusing on a different kind of biological terror, the limited series The Hot Zone: Anthrax.
The series is produced by Ridley Scott’s company, Scott Free Productions and premiered on Nat Geo in the fall of 2021. Litman’s editing work on the series focused on establishing the tone using a slower, more deliberate cutting style in conjunction with news footage to maintain the seriousness and urgency. The series based on the 2001 anthrax attacks that occurred after 9/11.
Litman’s editing in the show speaks to his philosophy of letting the performance and footage dictate his edit. In his conversation with Awards Focus, Litman speaks to his editing approach, his early inspirations, and the differences in editing a limited series compared to a multi-season show.
Awards Focus: Can you talk about your approach to editing The Hot Zone: Anthrax? How does your recollection of such a scary, gripping time in U.S. history influence your work?
Eric Litman: The 2001 Anthrax attacks I remember very well,I was living on the East Coast at the time. I grew up in Philadelphia and my sister was in New York when that was all happening, so those events ring true to me.
After reading the script and meeting with both the producers and director, my approach to The Hot Zone: Anthrax was to be accurate in what happened, and to create a sense of fear and paranoia, which was gripping the country at that point.
Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson were the showrunners and Daniel Percival was the pilot director. I worked with all three of them pretty closely. It was only a few weeks after September 11th, and we weren’t quite sure what was going on. Was this another terrorist attack? It was, just not in the same sense that we were accustomed to at the time.
The Hot Zone: Anthrax centers on the two leads of Daniel Dae Kim as FBI agent Matthew Riker, and Tony Goldwyn asDr. Bruce Ivins.
In the story, it’s only Daniel Dae Kim’s character who suspects that it’s a terrorist attack. Everyone else is dismissing him, claiming that this isn’t what it is. And he had to deal with all that opposition and people not believing him. Yet, he sticks to his beliefs and uses his background in science to zero in on who and what was behind all of this. Dr. Bruce Ivans, played by Tony Goldwyn, has a career dealing with chemical weapons. He specialized in anthrax, giving him a strong story focused background.
With only two central characters, the series is really a character piece on their backgrounds and how they got to and where they ended up. My editing approach to this complex story, because of their amazing performances, was to just let them tell me when to cut.
Additionally we worked hard to build different paces at times in order to just let the actors play. we modeled a lot of that off films like Sicario, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Hurt Locker. There were a lot of long pushes with a lot of great performances in those pieces that helped you know when to cut.
AF: How did you manage your time among the episodes and getting notes? The collaboration with the showrunners must have been tricky with the zoom of it all.
Litman: This was either my second or third show that I worked on during the pandemic. There are always challenges when you’re isolated like that. I worked from home and they were in Canada shooting, and I never was in the same room with anyone.
Initially, I thought that this might be difficult to do, but what I found was with Zoom, Evercast, and Facetime, the access to people and vice versa was very easy and it was actually a great tool to utilize. During preproduction, despite everyone being all over the world, we would still have Zoom meetings where we would discuss different films and shows out there and discuss the color palette, the tone, the score, the pace.
Our director, Daniel Percival, could sit there and say, “Pull up those examples and play it for everyone,” and we would be able to look at it right there. During production and even after production, my access to people using Evercast and streaming the cut allowed us to watch edits in real time, giving me real time feedback. So things that I initially thought were going to be hurdles ended up being great tools to utilize.
AF: What differences can you highlight in editing a limited series versus a multi-season series?
Litman: When you’re doing a pilot or you’re doing something that hasn’t been established yet, you’re sort of figuring it out as you go. This is how it was scripted, this is what the intent is: what they shoot might be something a little different.
And then you’ve got to figure out the tone, the voice of the show, the sound of the show, and the score of the show, so you’re sort of figuring these things all out as you go. On an established series, there are things that have been set.
I was on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for seven seasons. So yes, we’ve established the characters, we know who these people are, but people, the characters are always evolving. They’re always changing. So there’s always new things that are coming. Then there’s always something new that you’re introducing into an episode to move the story forward, so these are all new concepts, similar to then cutting a pilot or an anthology series. There are things that have not been established yet that you’re figuring out.
So yes, there’s some similarities to both. With Marvel, I cut forty episodes, and a lot of them were premiers and finales, introducing new characters into the MCU, so when you do that, you have to have everything very polished. It has to be presented in a very strong way. The same concepts apply when you’re doing a pilot.
AF: What inspired you to work in entertainment and what was your path to this successful career?
Litman: I was an art student growing up in my early years, and I was offered a lot of different art scholarships from various colleges, but I decided that film was really where I wanted to go. I grew up on the East Coast in Philadelphia, and I went to Temple University for film school.
When I got out of film school I worked for various different commercial houses on the East Coast… New York, Philadelphia, DC for a few years. Then I decided that after doing that I wanted to go back to school. So I applied to a number of schools and eventually got accepted into the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.
My emphasis was editing. It’s a two-year program, it was very hard, very difficult, and not a lot of people are accepted, but I walked out of there with a Masters in Editing. And I pretty much immediately started working as an assistant editor. I worked on a number of movie of the weeks, a number of series, and I worked for a lot of different editors that had 20-30 years of experience under their belt.
While working for them, I learned a tremendous amount on the job about how to be a very successful editor. I did that for a number of years, and when you’re working for people like that, the relationship between editor and assistant is also that of mentor and teacher. These mentorship relationships gave me lots of opportunities.
Along the way, I would pick up editing credits here or there. I would co-edit episodes with the editors I’d worked for, all with the intent of getting me ready to be a full-fledged editor. WithMarvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, I was there for seven seasonsand after season one I was promoted to editor. I worked for some very talented, great people like Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, Jeff Bell, Garry Brown, and Jeph Loeb.
They recognized that I had a passion for editing, a passion for storytelling, and I was a big Marvel fan. So they were very gracious in giving me my big break. It taught me that you have to treat every episode, especially with Marvel, like it’s a pilot. It has to be always presentable, always show ready, very polished, and that’s what I carried with me onto the The Hot Zone.
AF: Are you now someone’s mentor now?
Litman: I like to think that every assistant I have learns something from me.
AF: You listed three films that referenced for The Hot Zone: Anthrax. Can you expand on the elements of each?
Litman: We did talk a lot about Sicario, The Hurt Locker, and Zero Dark Thirty. The reason we targeted those examples was because there was a specific pace to those shows. It wasn’t really flashy cutting, it was “we’re going to let the tension dictate the cut.”
When I’m cutting, I let the footage tell me when to cut or when not to cut. Those examples were really invaluable, so much so that I used their scores a lot when I was temping the show. A lot of the show is just long, sustained drones, and they were great tools to utilize. It just helped shape the story we were telling.
AF: What challenges did you face on The Hot Zone: Anthrax, and did any of that come from its basis in real life events?
Litman: Yes, since this was a Nat Geo and based on a real moment in our history, it allowed us to have access to a tremendous amount of news footage. We had the real news footage, the raw footage of what they shot. We were able to utilize that to help tell our story and to move our story forward, but we had to be factually accurate.
So we would sit there and create these little sequences out of Dan Rather or Peter Jennings with footage of the event they’re talking about, and then we had to get it cleared by Nat Geo to make sure what we were saying was factually correct. Because the show was cut in 2021, but the events happened in 2001, we had to grade the image because TV looks a little different now than it did then.
We reformatted the image because 16:9 wasn’t really a thing back then, it was more 4:3, so there were some technical aspects we had to keep in mind when doing a period piece from 2001 (laughs). There were issues there but it was fun trying to figure out how to create this look, establish this look, take news footage from then, with footage from today, and make it all appear seamless.
AF: With Emmy voting starting just around the corner, what would award recognition for The Hot Zone: Anthraxmean to you?
Litman: It’s always great to get recognition. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t like that. But it would be great also for everyone involved to be recognized. Everyone on the show worked really hard. It’s a really fascinating series.
Even though I lived through the events, and I remember the events very well, there were a lot of things I didn’t know, or that a lot of the general public just didn’t know. To be recognized by your peers doing your craft well, and in this case telling this hidden history well, that’s just terrific.