Film and television editor Brett W. Bachman is no stranger to onscreen carnage. After all, Bachman served as editor on Panos Cosmatos’ psychedelic bloodbath Mandy, starring Nic Cage and Andrea Riseborough. It is therefore no surprise that horror director Mike Flanagan decided to message Bachman on Twitter as he searched for a single editor to cut all eight episodes of his latest horror miniseries for Netflix, The Fall of the House of Usher.
Flanagan was a huge fan of another Nic Cage film that Bachman cut – 2019’s Pig – and liaised with director Michael Sarnoski in order to get in touch with Bachman and offer him the job on Usher. Bachman immediately hit it off with Flanagan, a long-time editor on his own films. They shared in the vision that Usher is “a rock n’ roll show. It is big and fiery with lots of energy.”
And nowhere is that energy felt more than in “The Masque of Red Death” sequence in Episode 2, a mystifying and brutal dance party that culminates in the same kind of surrealist bloodshed that defined Bachman’s mesmerizing work on Mandy.
Bachman spoke with Awards Focus about how that sequence came together, as well as how his background in independent film prepared him to cut together Flanagan’s “eight-hour movie.”
Awards Focus: You edited this project very closely with the showrunner. Can you tell us more about how you got involved and what this working dynamic was like?
Brett W. Bachman: Mike Flanagan offered me the job on The Fall of the House of Usher in a Twitter message. He had seen a recent film of mine, Pig, and fell absolutely in love with it. I think it was his favorite film of the year. He had a meeting with my director from that film, Michael Sarnoski, and I received a text from Sarnoski afterwards – “Mike Flanagan will probably be reaching out.” A few weeks later, I got the offer.
He wrote me an extremely complimentary message about previous work I’ve done as an editor. I have long admired his skills as a writer and director (I’ve been a fan of all of his stuff since 2013 or so), but what stuck out most to me, was that he’s an extremely accomplished film editor. He’s cut all of his own features, and he’s edited a large portion of his Netflix shows.
We’ve had several mutual colleagues in the past. He’s worked closely with two other directors that I’ve cut films for, Karen Gillan and Mali Elfman. Additionally, he’s close with friends of mine, Daniel Noah and Elijah Wood from SpectreVision, so it wasn’t like he was hiring me out of the blue completely. We ran in similar circles.
He was looking for a single editor to cut all of The Fall of the House of Usher to give it a sense of unity. The idea was that I would do a first cut of the entire show while they were in production in Vancouver. Once production wrapped, they would come back to Los Angeles, where our post-production offices were located.
Mike directed four episodes, and his longtime cinematographer, Michael Fimognari, directed the other four episodes. I would work with Fimognari on the director cuts for his episodes, and Mike would take my edit of the episodes he directed, and would make necessary revisions. Simply put, we broke up the work between the two of us.
I spent the next two months working on the director’s cut with Fimognari on episodes 3, 4, 7, and 8. Meanwhile, Mike was down the hall working on the other half.
Mike would swing by our edit bay once every few days and check up on our edits, offering some feedback. As an editor himself, he can be very specific with his notes. Some notes would be like, “move that sting 3 frames earlier,” or “you need the music to be just a few dB higher so the shot doesn’t feel like it has dead air,” that sort of stuff. Most directors don’t get this specific, but Mike is an editor. That’s his comfort zone.
This is one of the reasons the producer’s cut was really expedited. After a round or two of in-person notes, Mike and I would trade sequences and he would do a pass. Here he’d adjust anything he wanted; swap takes, adjust timing, compress, or altogether omit scenes. It made everything very fast, with no chance of me misinterpreting a note. Altogether, it made the entire editing experience very easy.
I suppose it also helped that Mike was a big fan of my early edits; dozens of scenes went unchanged since my first assembly. For example, two big set pieces at the end of episode 102 and 106 are basically the first edits!
After we finished the director’s cut, I was working on every episode, i.e. supervising editorial integration of VFX across all eight episodes, reviewing VFX, music, sound, you name it. We would continue tweaking the edit all the way to delivery, even during the sound mixes.
AF: When starting on a project, what can you tell us about the early stages of your process?
Bachman: Before I begin any edit, I love talking to my director/showrunner about three things: story, character and tone. I want to get a sense of what makes this project tick.
My goal as an editor is to be a helper — I don’t believe that I have carte blanche to do whatever I want to during my first edit. I need to be in the same ballpark in terms of tone and emotion, and those can be very subjective. I want to know what excites my director about a project; what elements in the story are their favorites? What compelled them to this story in the first place? I want to collaborate, to assist in the creative vision directing the entire process. I think this builds trust in the editor/director relationship, it creates a bit more of a safe space, which is imperative to the creative environment.
Often, I find that a director’s favorite story elements are more in the subtext. Or, that they’re far more subtle than an audience may expect. The same goes for character; I love talking about the arcs so I can flag critical moments. These moments may be very gentle when performed, and could potentially be overlooked at first unless you’re looking for them. It could be as subtle as an actor refusing eye contact, or fumbling a sentence. If I can have this conversation with a director beforehand, I can make sure I keep an eye out for these subtle beats while I watch dailies.
On a show like Usher, when I asked Mike these questions, he responded that Usher is a rock n’ roll show. It is big and fiery with lots of energy. Tonally, it should be fun! It’s a karmic fantasy of retribution, of evil people answering to a sense of cosmic justice. He wanted the audience to root for Verna, our mysterious shapeshifter played to perfection by Carla Gugino.
One of the big things he noted right away, is that this show should avoid overt sentimentality. That had a big influence on how we would cut several dramatic scenes, e.g. selecting takes, scoring the scenes with music, and how we would shape the entire tone of the show.
AF: You’ve also edited a number of acclaimed indie films like Pig and Mandy. Did these projects inform your success on this hit series?
Bachman: Thank you! To a certain extent, yes, I think they do. I think all the work informs one another. For example, those who have ample experience in comedic film and tv, can take their command of rhythm and timing over to horror, which is very dependent on those elements to elicit tension, dread, and suspense.
A film like Mandy utilized tons of early sound design and music work in the Avid. There’s a lot of consideration to how those temp elements influence pacing, tone, story, character — everything! That film had undead demonic bikers, hallucinogenic transformations, ax smelting, and romantic musical montages. It’s lurid, phantasmagoric, and very playful. These elements then have a direct effect on how the director will narrow in on how to communicate what they want to our other key collaborators; i.e. sound designers and composers. My director on that film, Panos Cosmatos, would have conversations with our composer, the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, based on audio experiments that we were toying with in the Avid. That film, maybe more so than any other film I’ve worked on, required a lot of attention and experimentation with sound and music in the edit.
Therefore, I’m taking skills I honed on a film like Mandy, and applying those music and sound editing skills to a sequence like The Masque of Red Death in episode 2.
Mike likes the early edits to be very fleshed out in temp sound design. We spent a lot of time in editorial crafting the soundscape to curate just the right tone. For example, in the Pit and the Pendulum sequence, we had that 10 minute scene fully built out with a pretty thick level of building destruction elements, and the sound of said pendulum before we even saw a frame of early VFX. Even if the team is just watching temp title cards that say “Blade sweeps across the air” there would be a jagged, ear-splitting metallic whoosh rocketing through the soundtrack. This work would then inform how he and Fimognari would relay instructions to the VFX team of how he wanted the shot to feel and move.
One of my favorite things about a film like Pig though is how the story lives in the quiet moments; the silence between characters. It requires a very gentle touch, and trusts in the audience to understand more of the subtext present throughout individual scenes and beats. It is a film about death, the grieving process. It’s juggling a careful tone; we’re asking the audience to take a silly sounding premise (man loses truffle pig) and treat it sincerely. That film has a confidence in the way dialogue scenes are paced and cut; and that had a direct correlation to how I would approach Usher.
Like I said before, many scenes in the show are fast and rapid fire. However, sometimes we do the exact opposite if the emotion of a scene calls for it. There are several gentle scenes in Usher that require a feather touch, just like Pig.
Mike loves to describe Fall of the House of Usher as a rock concert. However, it also thrives in the quiet moments — beats of ambiguity, of choice. I think of those as the “acoustic moments.” There’s a moment in episode 8 that I love, where Young Madeline has been offered a life changing deal by Verna, and we hold a very long, tense shot of Willa Fitzgerald (Young Madeleine) considering the offer. The silence is extremely tense and very quiet. I always felt there was a moral compass at play, spinning out of control at that moment.
Usher is a character-driven satire, and I think one of the reasons it connected with people is that we treated our characters (morally reprehensible as some of them were) with a sense of empathy.
Mandy and Pig aren’t too similar on paper, but working on films like these, you learn to have a sense of dynamics. When does it feel right to be loud? To go to eleven? Vice versa, when does the story require us to be silent? To go acoustic?
It’s one of the reasons I love working in different genres, I feel like I get to learn something new on every project. Nothing gets stale.
AF: When watching this project, it sort of feels like one long movie, in a good way. Was this show cut more like a film? What are the differences in cutting for episodic versus features?
Bachman: I would say that this felt like editing a very long movie. I come from the feature film world, and this came with all the responsibilities that I’m used to. The biggest difference was honestly the workload, hundreds upon hundreds of scenes — the thing really was an eight hour movie! In this series, we had a gigantic ensemble cast, and it was truly special to see some of these character arcs play out over four, five, eight hours! It allowed more time to build a relationship with them, and more time to examine their complexities; to be drawn into their stories. Honestly, I also couldn’t have done it without my two assistant editors, Ruben Sebban and Nick Haridopolos.
AF: Were there any particular scenes or episodes that were difficult to edit throughout this series? How did you overcome that challenge?
Bachman: Oh yes, good question! Masque of Red Death in episode two comes to mind. It’s likely our biggest set piece in the show.
The finale of the episode required an edit that seeped with dread and tension for several minutes, before exploding into this sudden, terrifying carnage. Prospero “Perry” Usher meets a strange woman, Verna, at an exclusive masquerade he is throwing. Perry attempts to impress her, before Verna gives him a cryptic warning; that there’s still time to “stop it.”
We don’t know what “it” is just yet, but it sounds ominous!
Perry descends back to his party, ignoring the warning, as Verna seemingly pops around the room, warning the wait staff to leave by whispering something into their ears. As they leave, Perry triggers a sprinkler that he thinks will rain down water on his crowd of dancing partygoers. Turns out, the pipes are full of acid… poor Perry.
What ensues is a terrifying thirty seconds of chaos as the attendees (for lack of a better word) melt. They scream and panic as they fail to escape the torrent. Everybody dies. It’s one of the most chilling scenes I had ever read on paper, and the execution of the entire team; the disintegrating bodies from our special effects and VFX team, the panicked screeches from our sound team led by Trevor Gates and Kelly Cabral, make it one of the most chilling horror sequences in years.
In terms of the edit, this sequence was extremely difficult for a few reasons. First off, you’ve got to lay the groundwork right in the preceding scene; the warning that Verna gives Perry. You’ve got to prime the audience for the horror to come. That requires a lot of work to get the tone just right. We lull the audience into this ambiguous sense of danger and foreboding over several minutes of arcane warnings from Verna. We want the audience on edge and suspicious.
Then, once we get Perry back into the party, we have this amazing Nine Inch Nails needle drop that we utilize. This scene now becomes musically driven, and we’re building to a very particular climax in the song. In the Avid, I’m actually working backwards from this big climax when the acid will fall towards the end of the song. I’m retroactively building the scene backwards from this “hero moment.” I need to make sure that I’m laying all the groundwork for these story beats to land, but I have a very finite amount of time to do it.
On top of that, we’re switching between three different characters and their respective POVs, and the audience needs to track where in the masquerade we are at any given moment. We don’t want to confuse them with where we are spatially. Therefore, we’re jumping from character to character as Verna warns the waitstaff, and Perry obliviously continues with his plan to activate the sprinklers.
Then once the rain starts, it’s a heavy VFX-driven scene. We’re working with our VFX team to make sure that every single shot achieves linear continuity of burns and wounds. This was a long process of refinement, but it turned out incredible.
So to summarize, I had to build tension and set the tone with a long, dialogue driven scene, pop the audience into a big room with hundreds of extras, pivot between three intercut character POVs while making the geography clear, make the scene as tense as possible in a finite amount of time, and then drastically shift gears into a violent explosion of edits as the party erupts into chaos.
It was a very, very fun scene to cut. I don’t believe the edit has changed from the first assembly. I remember one afternoon Mike came into my edit room and said, “I just finished watching your cut of the finale of Perry’s party. I pushed play and didn’t pause once. I’m not going to change anything.” As an editor, it doesn’t get much better than that!
AF: What do you hope audiences will take away from your edit and the overall show viewing experience?
Bachman: Two things come to mind. First, we want them to have a really fun time with the show. It’s meant to be a karmic fantasy. Bad people getting punished in a sense of cosmic justice. It’s a horror-satire where you are rooting for the “slasher.” I think it’s far funnier than most people would expect.
Secondly, I hope people will find humanity in the characters. It’s easy to label all of the main characters as evil, but I think a much more interesting way to look at it is to find those moments where some sort of inner goodness almost breaks through. I think it makes the story so much more tragic if you feel that they also possess the ability to be kind or generous, but because of their upbringing and environment, they always choose the bad option.These characters continually suppress their inner humanity for greed, ego, and power.
There’s a moment in episode six that I love, where Tamerlane is listening to her new-stepmother Juno lament that the family is further apart than ever after several deaths in the family. Samantha Sloyan plays this specific beat so wonderfully, you can see her actively suppress and bury her instinctual reaction to comfort; she chooses to be mean and selfish in this moment.
Or the arc of a character like Frederick (Henry Thomas). He begins the series as this bumbling, wannabe mogul. He’s effectively toothless, constantly on the search for his father’s approval. Kind of like a sad puppy. However, the events of the show cause him to spiral into jealousy and hatred. You see his harmless affectations whittle away as a darker, rotten core becomes exposed, and he becomes one of the biggest monsters of the series.
I’ll end with this: There’s a great moment in episode seven, when Verna confronts ruthless COO Madeline (Mary McDonnell) about her moral decay. She says “I know who you are, and were, and who you could have been. I see all three standing shoulder to shoulder, and together they break my heart.” I love this line so much, and it became a bit of a compass for me.
It’s easy to vilify all these characters, but I think the complicated “gray area” is far more interesting. Who could these characters have been? What led them to become as corrupt as they are? Where were their shortcomings? Jealousy, greed, ego, power, ruthlessness: these are traits that we all wrestle with – they are not exclusive to people like the Ushers. I think it’s far easier to fall victim to these darker inclinations than we realize, so I hope people take a sense of tragedy from the show, i.e. “they had the power to be so much more,” and realize that our own morality is a long habit of decisions.
AF: What is your dream project?
Bachman: Good people and good material. That’s really what it boils down to for me. I’m happy in any genre, whether it be comedy, drama, horror, film or TV; but I love character-driven stories that take risks.
In many ways, Usher is a dream project. I’ve been a fan of Mike Flanagan for years, and I had an amazing time on the show. I can’t say how humbled I felt to be invited into the collective of collaborators, cast and crew alike. Secondly, a giallo-inspired dark satire framed by Edgar Allan Poe stories? I mean, c’mon that sounds amazing no matter how you look at it.
AF: What is next for you? How can we keep track of this twitter account that keeps getting you work?
Bachman: I have a few upcoming features that I’m really excited about. We just premiered The Toxic Avenger remake to a very rapturous audience at Fantastic Fest and Beyond Fest last year — expect news about a release date any day now. Secondly, I’m finishing up a supernatural drama called Rabbit Trap with Dev Patel that is really something special. I can’t wait for audiences to see it. Finally, I just started director’s cut of a new feature called Companion starring Sophie Thatcher and Jack Quaid. I can’t really tell you much about that one, other than it’s a really fascinating genre picture, but expect that next year.
And I’ll give you my Instagram @brettwbachman (laughs).