Four-time Emmy nominated editor Cindy Mollo has dedicated three years to cutting Netflix’s flagship drama, one of just five series nominated for Outstanding Drama Series at last year’s Emmy awards. Mollo was instrumental in the show’s success, having developed a creative rhythm with Emmy winning Ozark director, producer, and star Jason Bateman.
In the third season, the Byrde family is expanding their casino empire and money laundering services for the Navarro cartel. We find Wendy (Laura Linney) hungry to gain Navarro’s favor, pushing their illegal enterprise to add a second casino against Marty’s (Jason Bateman) wishes.
The couple’s back and forth maneuvering, marital counseling arguments, and incessant subterfuge puts the family’s patriarch in danger of a cartel assassination. The incredible tension driving the third season is deftly crafted by Mollo. Awards Focus had the pleasure of speaking with Mollo about her process editing Ozark, working with Bateman as a director, and capturing unscripted moments to bring humanity to her scenes.
Awards Focus: Netflix fosters a very cinematic experience, does this allow you as an editor to hold onto a shot longer to clarify the balance between pushing the story and capturing a human performance?
Cindy Mollo: One thing that we do on Ozark is that we try not to spoon-feed the audience. You won’t necessarily see an insert shot every time someone looks at their phone. We might stay on the person’s face and see them processing the information and that’s all you need.
There was something that Jason had said to me during the first season, where he wanted to make the audience lean in so that they got every bit of information. Sometimes to do that, you hold on a shot longer than you normally would.
In the first season, there’s a moment in the second episode, the Byrdes are in the Ozarks and Marty is feeling desperate and he’s suddenly thinking that, maybe his family would be better off without him. In the edit suite Jason said, “We need more time in this moment so that the audience understand, he’s not just looking at that water and thinking if I jump and I die, there’s insurance money, my family could be safe. We needed the audience to understand, that he’s really thinking it through.”
We held an additional five to six more seconds to make it very clear. That’s the guiding principle we always need to make sure that the audience is getting a clear sense of what the story demands.
AF: In our interview with Julia Garner, she pointed to the organic laugh that occurs between Ruth and Wyatt, which made it into the episode. Are those unscripted moments gold for an editor?
Mollo: If you see something like that laugh, or let’s say an actor has a little twitch of the eyebrow which might signify coming up with a plan, then you can put that in because it’s a seamless human moment.
No one else knows what happens before or after a take, and you can use that to your advantage. I remember working on a pilot where an actor literally forgot his line and he had this long pause, and then he just burst out laughing.
I was able to use it in the scene because it was this cute meeting between a man and a woman in a park, and it came across as very flirtatious in the moment. The chemistry between the two actors was very strong but he just forget his line. Using that moment creates a real human moment.
AF: That’s fantastic. Is there a defined set of rules for an editor when you’re cutting between two actors? How do you as an editor match the energy between two performances?
Mollo: You have to think about the energy. For example, I like take three from Jason, and take four from Laura for the scene between the two of them. And you start cutting the scene together, knowing that you’ve got their best takes. However, you might get to a specific line and you think, “Actually, I don’t want her to be as forceful as he is. I think I want to go to another take, where maybe she did this line and she took a long pause, where she glared at him and then she delivered her line almost as a whisper.”
It’s almost like arranging music, where you start a rhythm but then you go, “Here I want to alter that rhythm, he has just said something shocking to her, I want to give her a moment to process it. Then instead of her yelling back at him, I want her to be icy and steely cold.”
Anytime you’ve got a scene between Marty and Wendy, you always have just a mountain of options, it’s really fun. It all starts with the writing. The writing for the two of them is so good, you feel as if you are watching a real married couple.
AF: The season three premiere, Wartime, is written by showrunner Chris Mundy, and initially opening with that violence. Can you talk about that?
Mollo: Chris’ original concept was to start with a big act of violence so we understood the Petri dish that the Byrdes find themselves in, which is this world that is toxic and violent. It’s written that when you get through the commercial for the casino, you’d see Wendy looking at the commercial on her laptop, she would switch over to looking at a news feed and she would see the story of the violence in Mexico.
We were going to shoot in a house with a 360 view originally, filled with explosives to blow it up, but the scene was rewritten to what you see now, where you’re in this mall. You feel the life of the place, and then this mysterious man comes in with boxes and kills the people at the drop-off and sets off these bombs. So it was much more affordable and it made the same point.
AF: At the very end of the episode, I think there’s this lovely piece of music by Radiohead that underscores the scene with Wendy. Is Jason a fan?
Mollo: Jason loves Radiohead and that was a deep cut of theirs, that hasn’t gotten a lot of play. Originally, the episode was originally written that it ended with the moment of Ruth pushing Frank Jr. off the top deck of the Riverboat casino, and Marty going, “Oh, fuck.” It’s a classic Ozark ending.
Jason had the idea for the song, and I threaded it in, but the song couldn’t continue over the fight between Frank and Ruth because it just felt a little inelegant. So we restructured the backend, so that Ruth pushes him off the top deck, it’s not the final moment, it’s the sequence with Wendy in the old house.
The song gives a lot of weight to what she’s going through. She does all the same bratty teenager things she did when she was a kid, and broke into neighbors’ houses. She leaves with this look on her face, that holds the audience. When Marty says to her, “It was a good house,” and she says, “Yeah, it was.”
AF: So during your initial work on an episode, at what point do you start to show a first cut assembly to the creative team? Is it scene by scene?
Mollo: So every show I work on is a little different and on Ozark, every episode is a little different. Jason, directed the first two, and the first time I worked with him in season one, I sent him some scenes so he could comment. At that point we didn’t have a model for the show. I sent him some things to get some feedback on and once we were on the same page I was on my way. I didn’t send him anything else until the whole show was assembled
Now, I work on my own until I get what I call, the first assembly, which is every scene of the show in the place that it was scripted. Even on Ozark, as well written as the show is, sometimes you’ll think, “I want to flip the order of these two scenes because this event should come right after that event.” So that’s why I call it an editor’s cut, because I’m always looking for clarity. However, I will usually check in with Chris and the writers, because sometimes something is planted in an episode, that’ll be picked up four or five episodes down the road, and I haven’t read that script yet.