We talk with editor Jeff Buchanan about success, making connections, and his work on HBO's hit show "Barry," starring Bill Hader.
The HBO comedy follows the titular hitman as he tries to leave behind a life of crime to pursue Hollywood dreams. But Barry, played by showrunner Bill Hader, can’t escape his handler Fuches (Stephen Root) or the Chechen crime family run by hapless NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), even as he tries to focus on his relationships with girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg) and acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler).
Barry is a show where so many elements coalesce to form near-perfect television, and its editing plays a huge part in that alchemy.
One of the nominees in the Emmy comedy editing category this year is Jeff Buchanan, for his stellar work on the episode “ronny/lily.” If you’ve talked to me this summer, I’ve definitely brought up this groundbreaking episode at one point or another.
Buchanan’s experience isn’t limited to TV. He’s also worked on documentaries and feature films. He spoke with No Film School this week about his career, how he got his start in Hollywood, and what it’s like to work on Barry.
How he started as an editor
Buchanan attended college at Georgia State, where he took film classes and developed an interest in directing and editing. He said he became a fan of documentary filmmaking and decided he wanted to tell stories.
“I was in college right when Final Cut Pro came out,” he said. “And it was a time when you could just have a computer and Final Cut Pro and a camcorder, and make your own stuff. So I started shooting my own documentaries and films and taught myself to edit on Final Cut Pro.”
He said there’s a particular “creative freedom” he found in editing documentaries, which helped grow his interest in the field.
“So within a year and a half, I was working with Spike and Michel,” he said.
How he landed at Barry
Buchanan met Hader in New York City through mutual friends. Shortly after meeting, Buchanan was cutting Her with Jonze, and they came to a scene where they needed a voice for a chat room user.
“I was like, ‘Why don’t we call Bill Hader?’” he said. “And Spike was like, ‘What?’”
Hader happily recorded the dialogue for Chat Room Friend #2, and then ended up hanging out with Buchanan and Jonze for several hours, discussing films and SNL.
A few years later, Hader called Buchanan up to meet with Alec Berg and the rest of the Barry team. Buchanan was hired and cut the pilot episode.
“I didn’t ask how much money I would get paid. I didn’t ask how long it would take. I didn’t ask where I would sleep or how I would get there or what the hours were. I just did everything.”
The process of cutting Barry
At this point, our conversation got a little sidetracked while we discussed favorite characters (mine’s Barry, of course) and I gushed about how deftly the show blends comedy, drama, and action.
Buchanan said that this tone is often nailed first in the script, because Hader, Berg, and the writing team know they have to bounce between dark and light humor from scene to scene.
He added that the show’s editing methods focus on making sure the audience cares about the characters, and therefore cares about the show.
“Really, it’s just always being conscious of how you feel about the characters at the end of each scene, and during the scene,” Buchanan said. “Do you still feel sympathy for Barry? Do you still like him? Are you empathetic toward these characters?”
Buchanan and the show’s other editor, Kyle Reiter, attempt to make every scene as funny, dramatic, or tense as they possibly can. It’s then a process of narrowing things down and nailing tone.
“And then you sit down and you watch the whole thing together, and that’s when you start to feel like, ‘Okay, we’ve gone too broad comedy here,’” he said. “‘We can’t have this broad comedy scene with this super-dramatic scene right after.’”
Buchanan specifically mentioned Carrigan’s performance as NoHo Hank. His scenes include improvised jokes that are often so strong, it’s a challenge to decide what to include.
“On any other show, you’d want to just keep that in, and go for every laugh you can get,” he said.
But with Barry, they have to edit knowing that too much comedy would be tonally inconsistent to a dramatic scene later in the episode.
Emmy-worthy editing on “ronny/lily”
Buchanan said the groundbreaking “ronny/lily” episode was heavily storyboarded, and Hader came to the episode knowing stylistically what he wanted, like the long takes during the opening fight scene. (Hader also directed the episode.)
“When we’re cutting the show, a lot of times Kyle and I are putting music and intricate sound design,” Buchanan said. “When we show it to Bill and Alec, we want them to see exactly where the music should come in and where it should go out, and how it should help shape a scene. When I started cutting ‘ronny/lily,’ I never went to the music bin to grab music to put over any of the scenes.”
About two weeks into editing, Hader mentioned also he didn’t want any score in the episode either.
“It was just this cool thing that just made me realize that Bill and I were already locked in on exactly what the tone and vibe for the episode would be,” he said.
Buchanan did pick the one song included in “ronny/lily.” During the finale, when Barry reunites with Ronny in the supermarket, you can hear LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live” playing over the speakers. And it’s perfect.
His advice to aspiring editors
Buchanan said he found success as an editor due to his willingness to work hard and have humility. He often tells new graduates to not worry about money or credits as they’re starting out.
“For me, I just did everything that anyone asked me to do,” he said. “I didn’t ask how much money I would get paid. I didn’t ask how long it would take. I didn’t ask where I would sleep or how I would get there or what the hours were. I just did everything.”
“Really, it’s just always being conscious of how you feel about the characters at the end of each scene, and during the scene. Do you still feel sympathy for Barry? Do you still like him? Are you empathetic toward these characters?”
In his opinion, the most important thing was to gain experience and keep working, and in the process, he met some amazing creative colleagues.
He also said it’s about not having a “big head.”
“You don’t want to be in a situation where you’re like, ‘No, it’s definitely this way, this is the right way to do it, and I don’t want to hear any other opinions,’” Buchanan said. “You’re not going to last long, and you’re also not going to have any fun.”
He said that the collaborative aspect is one of the best parts of his job.
“Especially with Barry,” he said. “Especially when Bill and Alec start coming in. It’s so fun to get their side of things and to see what their intentions were with a scene or a take or a transition. Then everyone’s firing on the same cylinder, everyone’s working together. That’s the [most fun] part.”