How Script, Performance, and Avid Technique Keep Audiences Guessing

The first season of Showtime's Homeland — which won six major awards at the Emmys last week — amounted to a very tricky cat-and-mouse game involving Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a brilliant but bi-polar CIA officer, and Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a U.S. Marine Sergeant recently returned from eight years of captivity in Iraq. During his ordeal, Mathison believes, Brody has been turned into a terrorist. The tricky part? She's the only one who believes that.

With so many viewers catching up on new episodes days or even weeks after they air, we're loathe to reveal any surprises from the second season, which airs through December, but we asked one of the show's three editors, Jordan Goldman (an Emmy-winner for his work on the series pilot), about the first season, including some of his editorial techniques and the creative strategies that were used to keep viewers guessing. And if you haven't started watching Homeland yet, be warned that there are some season-one spoilers here.

"It's one of those shows where, when the script comes out, work stops because everyone just wants to take 45 minutes and read the new script," Goldman told StudioDaily. "Working in an environment like that is just wonderful."

Claire Danes and Damian Lewis in HOMELAND

With a pilot episode built entirely around the burning question of whether or not Brody had been turned against his own country, Homeland got a reputation early on as a high-wire act. Viewers wondered whether the show would be able to maintain suspense about his allegiances across 12 episodes. Partway through the season, the show revealed that Brody had, in fact, agreed to carry out a terrorist attack in the U.S. The subject of Homeland then became Brody's motives, and his ability to actually carry out the plans he had made.

"[Executive producers] Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon were planning on doing the whole season as 'is he or isn't he?'," Goldman says. "They hired the other writers, all of whom had been show-runners, and very quickly the room came to the conclusion that the show wouldn't be able to stretch out 'is he or isn't he' for a full season. So they shifted to 'will he or won't he?' And that's how the show keeps you hooked for all 12 episodes."

Multiple-Personality Performances

But surely the editors were clued in about how the season would end when they worked on the pilot. Right? "No! I didn't know," Goldman says. "I wasn't sure which way Brody was going to go." In fact, the pilot was cut in an attempt to make every scene work with multiple interpretations of Brody's behavior. If he's acting weird in a scene, it might be because he's working out the details of a terrorist plot in his head. Or it may be because he's suffering from PTSD after eight years as a prisoner of war. That's another strategy, executed partly through Damian Lewis's performance and partly through clever shooting and cutting tactics, that made the show gripping.

"Lewis is so smart about his performance, and he can play a scene so many different ways," Goldman says. "In the scene where he comes home and meets his family for the first time in the airport, he and the director did it a few different ways. They shot a take where he comes in and he's a broken shell of a man who can't make eye contact with anyone. Then there was a take — I called it the Spielberg version — where he comes in and sees his family and he's instantly delighted and happy and crying. It's the classic happy reunion. Everyone's ecstatic to see him. And then they did a take right down the middle of those two, where he's damaged but trying to connect to people. We used a combination of those three takes throughout the scene. And it's a testament to Damian that he could make all of those performances really compelling."

If viewers felt genuinely baffled by Brody's behavior, that explains why. Still, if you go back to the beginning of the show after watching the whole season, there are some clues to his real state of mind. "There's a great little moment that a lot of people don't remember when Brody meets the vice president at the airport," Goldman recalls. "Right at the very end of the scene, he gives the vice president a really strange look. It's a foreshadowing of everything Brody is back here to do."

Subjective Editing Techniques

If the show was necessarily evasive about Brody's feelings in that first episode, it also showed that he wasn't entirely innocent. "There's a scene at the end of the pilot where Brody's jogging, and Carrie's interrogation of him plays in voiceover," Goldman says. "We intercut that with Brody in captivity, in the scene where [his friend] Walker dies. We were playing with, when do we reveal the information that Brody was involved with killing Walker? We wound up taking this flashback material and pushing it to that part of the show, and while he's jogging we cut several times from Brody to that memory. And each time we cut to it, we reveal more. The first time, we see that Walker was beat up. The second time, we see that Brody was throwing the punches. By the last time, we reveal that he killed Walker, and that Abu Nazir was the one who comforted him afterward."

Similarly, a scene showing Carrie suffering an emotional breakdown after her CIA mentor (Mandy Patinkin) discovers that she's running unauthorized surveillance on Brody's home life, was cut in a fragmented style. "I used a lot of jump cuts to suggest a frantic state of mind — that she's really upset and losing control of things." That scene is a great example of the show's jittery style, which is exemplified by a jazzy title sequence that seems to comment on the brilliant but very nonlinear way that Mathison's brain works.

Avid Workflow

Homeland works on a three-editor rotation, so that Goldman cuts every third episode, alternating with his cohorts on the show, Joe Hobeck and Terry Kelley. The show networks all three editors and two assistants (currently Shon Hedges and Garret Donnelly, though Ann Parish worked on part of season one) through an Avid Unity shared-storage system, and upgraded its five Avid Media Composer systems this year to 5.5. Goldman likes interface improvements in recent versions of the Avid software, including the ability to easily see which tracks from a multi-track audio clip are being used at any given point in the timeline.

"For example, we receive multi-track audio from our on-set recordist for each take, which will typically have a mix track, a boom track, and some iso lav mic tracks," he explains. "With this new function, when I cut in the individual iso tracks, I can see in the timeline that for shot one, I'm using track three, which might be Brody's iso, for the next shot I'm using track four, which might be [Brody's wife] Jessica's iso, and then in the third shot I'm back to using track one, the mix. It's very, very handy." He points to Steve Cohen's book, Avid Agility, as a great source for picking up tips and tricks that improve an Avid editor's efficiency.

The show shoots in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the ARRI Alexa. At a film break during lunch every day, dailies are sent to Keep Me Posted in Burbank, where they are colored and transferred to Avid DNx36 1080p. (After syncing audio, Keep Me Posted archives the ProRes masters.) That footage shows up at the cutting room in Los Angeles on a hard drive the next morning, along with the second half of dailies from the day before. The dailies and sound rolls are loaded into the Avid, reviewed, and organized by the assistants.

Goldman gets about a month to work on each episode. "We generally get a few days after shooting to finish our cut, and polish our music and sound work," he says. "The DGA contract guarantees the director four days with the editor on the episode. When they leave, Alex Gansa, the showrunner, comes in, and he usually gets about a week with the footage to adjust it and move things around. Then we send it to [production company] Fox21 and they take a pass or two and give us notes. Then it goes to Showtime for notes. Finally, we lock it with Alex and send it to sound and color."

One of the ways Goldman pushes the quality of the show is to do as much as he can during the edit to make the show sound as good as it can in offline form. "I really like using the Avid automation gain tool," he says. "I rubberband stuff, adjusting the levels to make it sound great. I play with perspective using sound a lot, which helps tell the story." And the assistants do a lot of work setting up temp VFX, like using animattes to put the correct footage on monitor screens.

"Shon and Garret are really great," Goldman notes. "They help with a lot of the music and sound effects, and we try to give them scenes to cut whenever we can. They also cut our recaps. That's what I did on The Shield. You get editing experience by doing those, and you can show people what you're capable of. Katie O'Hara is the co-producer who runs our department, and she does a great job managing everything and getting it where it needs to be."

Sizing Up the Second Season

So how will the second season of Homeland measure up to the first? Goldman is betting that it will hold its own. "I haven't heard anybody sum up this season eloquently yet," he admits, but promises that the writers push the story in interesting directions in every episode.

"What I like about Homeland and shows like Breaking Bad is they're not afraid to move the story forward in a big way. In almost every episode of Breaking Bad, something happens to someone that they can never go back from. I think Homeland is like that. Things happen very quickly that are irreversible and impact our characters in ways they can't back away from. I have enormous admiration and respect for our writers, who are constantly painting themselves into corners and then finding ways out of them. I haven't read how it ends yet, but I'm up to episode 11 and it's just f—ing great."

Homeland airs Sunday nights at 10 pm on Showtime.

Photo of Jordan Goldman (top) by Prashant Gupta.