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SYFY WIRE Russian Doll

Awards Contenders: Russian Doll's secret weapon? The edit room

By Jennifer Vineyard
Russian Doll

Welcome to Awards Contenders. This month, SYFY WIRE is speaking to a long list of actors, artists, and artisans whose work earned them Oscars, Golden Globes, Critics Choice, SAG and other nominations this year. Today, we speak with Todd Downing, the ACE-nominated editor on Netflix's Russian Doll.

Everyone assumes the loops are the most complicated part of editing Russian Doll, but editor Todd Downing says they're easy. ("It's super, super organized.") The tricky elements, he says, are juggling disparate genres — comedy, drama, sci-fi, horror — and making them fit next to each other in one coherent piece, while at the same time constructing story arcs and building the actors' performance — even if they're saying the same lines in the same rooms. "It had to feel repetitive and not repetitive at the same time, you know?"

Downing took some time to chat with SYFY WIRE about how Russian Doll came together in the edit room and tipped us off to a few hidden details.

Episode 7, your nominated episode, has a lot of long takes, where you focus on the performances …

There's a lot of subtlety in that, like when Nadia's talking to Ruth about her mom, how she feels responsible for her mom's death. Natasha can cry on command, but getting the timing of the dropping of her tear to what her friend says that triggers that tear? That's an important part of editing.

We get a lot of cuts to Nadia as a little girl, as a flashback to her childhood trauma in the past, and then as an element that triggers her death in the present. What were the challenges there?

The flashbacks are the only time you're not in Nadia or Alan's adult world, the only time you're outside the loop, so we cut it up a bit more. The pacing was a bit different. The tone was different. And I love that episode because Chloë Sevigny is in it. I just walked into my room and she was on my monitor, and it was a nice surprise, because nobody told me she was in the show! But getting the horror aspect, I loved that. That was also about how subtle or how obvious Nadia's younger self was. I remember being like, "How are we going to create the feeling of being unsettled?"

We don't do jump scares, or anything like that. It's like how we did the nosebleeds — it's not blood pouring out of their eyes, but one drop of blood coming from the nose. We didn't need to go too far. Hereditary came out around the time I started doing the editor's cut on Episode 7, and it totally inspired the sound design for this. When the girl first appears, there's a foghorn that goes off, very, very low. I was talking to the mixer, I said, "Oh, I was inspired by Hereditary, because it was just amazing," and he said, "Oh! I did that film." I was basing it on something where we had the same mixer! [Laughs.]

What are some things you'd like people to notice on a rewatch?

I had pitched an idea about a conversation repeating, so there's this moment when Greta Lee's character Maxine and Rebecca Henderson's character Lizzie sit and talk in Episode 3. Maxine asks if cyanide is sweet, and if that's why Jim Jones put it in the Kool-Aid for his cult's mass suicide back in 1978? Maxine then has an idea: "Maybe I should start a religion. Then I could really make an impact!" It was some weird improv that the two actresses were doing, and I used it again when Alan wakes up at Maxine's loft at the end of Episode 5, as if it's coming from the other room. That's just one of the many small, subtle things we did.

When Nadia was outside Greta's loft and realized it was a Yeshiva — "It's not the ketamine, it's the f***ing Yeshiva" — that was a line we added in ADR. One of Natasha's inspirations, style-wise, is Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, so it was great to capture that sort of character mumbling, because he talks to himself throughout that whole film. We had Nadia say weird small things like that to herself.

Before Nadia meets Alan, she walks by him in the park a few times in Episode 3. We were like, "Let's make sure we get the take where it's a little more obvious without putting a big arrow that he had gone by." Did you notice the guys in the deli?

How they're also the guys in the video game meeting? And the paramedics? And the guys in the park?

Yeah, yeah. [Laughs.] It took me a couple of days to realize that.