Vera Drew is an editorial polymath — in addition to her work in the edit suite, she’s also an accomplished writer and director who knows her way around animation and design. In fact, it was an early interest in animation that helped guide her career path as she came up through the ranks at Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s Abso Lutely Productions, where she honed her skills cutting improv-based comedy. That experience helped her land a gig as one of the editors on Showtime’s seven-episode Who Is America?, in which series creator Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Bruno) played fictional characters who interacted, outrageously, with guests who weren’t in on the gag. She is one of six picture editors nominated for an Emmy this year for their work on the second episode, which featured encounters between Cohen and former Bachelor contestant Corinne Olympios, journalist Ted Koppel, former Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney, and Georgia State Representative Jason Spencer — the latter in a particularly damaging appearance that saw him mocking Asian accents, shouting racial epithets on camera and (yes, really) dropping his trousers. Spencer held out only two days after the episode aired before announcing his resignation.
Since that series aired last summer, Drew directed four new series for Channel 5, a just-launched Adult Swim streaming channel featuring classic programming from Tim and Eric alongside new web shows. We talked to her about what she’s learned at Abso Lutely, editing in Adobe Premiere Pro, and how edgy, subversive comedy engages with the absurdity of real life.
StudioDaily: You worked at Tim and Eric’s Abso Lutely Productions. What was that experience like, and how did it affect your sensibilities as an editor?
Vera Drew: I originally started as an intern about eight years ago. I climbed the intern ladder and followed the post-production track because I saw, even early on, that the editors who come out of Abso Lutely are really writer-directors who use editing software. So much of the writing and directing actually happens in the edit bays, stringing together narrative threads from real-life interactions between fictional characters and real people. I had always wanted to write and direct, ever since I was a little. So I saw it as the perfect place where I could kind of incubate as a writer and director doing what I like doing, which is editing.
The perfect example of all that was a show I just directed with them called I Love David. It was hosted by David Liebe Hart, who is this public access legend, but he’s relatively raw and unpolished as a performer, and we were unleashing him out in the real world. A lot of the filming was just grabbing ingredients for post, like a line here or there about his time in the Navy, or eating something disgusting. In the editing it’s all pieced together and, you know, “written,” so I’d say that all of my instincts as a writer and director come from my experience as an editor at Abso Lutely.
In straight documentary film, too, the editorial process is where the story gets put together in a lot of cases. Do you feel that it’s similar to working on a nonfiction documentary film, or does there tend to be more planning in advance to figure out what the narrative threads are going to be?
It all comes from the same tools that you would use in a documentary. I believe Dave Kneebone, the executive producer of Abso Lutely Productions, had a background in documentary prior to working with them. So I’m sure it’s kind of in the DNA there. I edited a show right after Who Is America? that was another politically based reality show called KRFT Punk’s Political Party, and for that they essentially shot three panels and a few days’ worth of what was essentially documentary footage in D.C. When it came time to put together the editor’s cut, I spent a week or two alone in an edit bay working off of their script, which was a rough outline. We were taking the ingredients that you’d get from documentary footage and applying it to the overall story we wanted to tell. The web series An Emmy for Megan is another example where you get handed a few days’ worth of footage that has a documentary feel to it, and then you build your editor’s cut. On KRFT Punk, I worked with director Eric Notarnicola and showrunner Dan Curry for a few weeks after that to make adjustments, incorporate the rest of their vision, and get it down to time. The end result is definitely different from a documentary, but I think it all starts from the same place. Then again, I feel like most people know, by now, that most documentaries are pretty scripted in a lot of ways.
The other difference about what you’re doing is that, as part of the story you’re telling, you’re bringing out the humor and accenting jokes and, you know, keeping things funny. There’s got to be a comic sensibility, so that’s another narrative layer.
Exactly. And it’s really cool — with both Who Is America? and KRFT Punk — to be able to make something that really is outrageously funny and insane and groundbreaking. It’s actually cathartic because of how dark and absurd things are in the country right now. It’s not only funny, but it’s actually saying something, and there’s really nothing better than being on a show that has no problem having a strong point of view and zero qualms about exposing the hypocrisy that’s going on around us.
That’s a good segue for me to ask how you actually got the job on Who Is America? That’s high-profile stuff with Sacha Baron Cohen, so I’m sure you knew immediately that it would be quite an experience. How did that come about for you?
It’s funny, because if you look at the credits of Who Is America?, there’s a bunch of Abso Lutely people all over it. I got contacted by Dan Longino, who directed and produced it. We had worked together on a Netflix comedy special for Joe Mande and we just really clicked. When I found out what it was, I was like an instant yes. Sacha had been a comedic hero of mine since high school. It’s funny, because I’m trans and Bruno was, honestly, one of the first LGBTQ+ characters I remember seeing on television — at least as far as the ones that made me laugh. Being that deeply closeted and young and also a comedy nerd, watching somebody play just a fabulous, over-the-top queer character while exposing bigots and making them look foolish was exactly what I needed. That was during a time when gay marriage wasn’t even legal yet. It was like a dream I never knew I had, to work with him, because it just seemed completely out of reach. So when Dan contacted me, it was like of course. Absolutely.
It’s really interesting to me that you found Bruno empowering, because sometimes it’s hard for people to gauge these things. You might say something is in poor taste, but if it’s comedy — I mean it’s just really interesting the way humor works, right? Because Bruno is this very over-the-top kind of character. And I think some people sort of recoiled from that and think that it’s a bad thing to have those stereotypes. But at the same time you can be very attracted to that and say, “This is important representationally.” You know, this is doing something that nobody else is doing and making something visible that would otherwise be invisible.
Yeah, humor for me is like a release of nervous energy. A lot of the projects I do, especially with Tim and Eric, feel like I’m approaching comedic stuff from almost a horror angle. Whether it’s horror or absurdity behind it, I think what Sacha did on his old show and on Who Is America? is a humorous release of a serious, heavy message.
And if you can’t react to the heaviness with humor, it becomes really, really hard to bear, I think.
I have worked almost exclusively with Abso Lutely, and I like that in-your-face comedy. It’s really fun to play with, whether it’s gross, outrageous or controversial. Having come up in a particular part of the comedy community that thrives on edgy, messed-up humor, I want my work to remind people that they can enjoy subversive comedy and still disapprove of unacceptable behavior such as misgendering people or discriminating against immigrants.
Let’s talk a little bit about what you’re using. Are you an Avid editor or do you work in Premiere Pro? What’s your tool of choice?
I strongly prefer to use Premiere. My editing includes a lot of VFX and motion graphics work that requires After Effects, so it makes sense for me to always be working inside an Adobe world. I’m not an official spokesperson for Premiere, but I think it makes sense for the creative brain. I did a Tim and Eric game show called Tim and Eric Qu?z. It was this dystopian sci-fi game show, and there was a ton of 3D animation in it. I never would have been able to put that together in Avid. It would have required a very powerful computer, and it would have been like trying to do the FX on a calculator.
How much 3D work do you actually do? Are you a 3D artist as well as an editor?
No, but I like directing 3D animation a lot and I work with an artist named Ben Granger. I don’t know the mechanics of it, but as far as college goes, I was studying to be an animator. In the back of my head I thought I was going to be an experimental filmmaker and somehow make that work financially. But I quickly realized, by the time I got past my freshman year, “Oh, I will probably need to make a living.” So I began approaching TV and film from an animation background early on. It’s only recently that I’ve returned to it with Tim and Eric Qu?z. I Love David has a ton of animation in it as well, because David Liebe Hart is such a talented artist. I had never seen his work animated before, and it was really important to me to do that.
I do want to ask you something about my experience as a viewer of Who Is America?. Some of it is very funny and I don’t know that I necessarily felt sorry for anybody who was on the show, but sometimes it almost sent me out of my skin — made me nervous and tense to see what was going on. It’s such a vivid feeling to have as a viewer. And I was wondering, as an editor, you say you’re a big believer in in-your-face comedy. When you cut, are you specifically thinking of what reaction you’re going to inspire in the viewer? Maybe that’s a dumb question because of course you are. But to what degree are you able to anticipate and understand what the reaction is going to be for viewers who see the end of the process and aren’t intimately familiar with all the material, as you are?
I think that’s largely just the editor’s job in general, no matter what the show is. When I’m editing political comedy, whether it’s KRFT Punk or Who Is America?, the thing I’m primarily concerned with and focusing on is I want the audience to know that what is happening is 100% actually happening, and what you’re seeing on screen isn’t being carefully manipulated to make it look like somebody saying or doing something they aren’t saying or doing. It kind of depends on what the project is but, generally speaking, I am thinking about capturing the realism of a scene. Especially if it’s something that is reality based, right? A lot of times, that’s knowing when to not edit, and when to let a moment breathe in the awkwardness of a wide shot.
It really is just the question of what is the most effective edit for the material — all of those creative decisions you make, every time you choose an edit point.
It’s 100% why I like working with Tim and Eric so much, because for them specifically, I think a lot of it is instincts-based, and that’s where my upbringing at Abso Lutely is integral, because you have to learn to trust your gut and say, “This is funny,” or “This is working,” and roll with it. That requires a lot of confidence.
Tell me again what you’ve been working on since Who Is America? aired last year?
I just helped put together Tim and Eric’s new online TV network. It’s called Channel Five. In addition to coming up with the overall aesthetic for the network, I put together a bunch of bumpers and interstitials and original content, and I wrote, directed and executive-produced four original web series for that. All of that lives at adultswim.com, where you watch shows on demand or watch the stream playing original programming and old Tim and Eric shows 24/7.
It’s been interesting to see how the purview of the editor — which used to be just cutting film together — now includes a lot of design work. Some editors do VFX and composites with split frames and really elaborate stuff.
That’s why I’m glad I followed the editing track. Like I said, I’ve known since I was six years old, when I saw Back to the Future, that I wanted to write and direct movies, but I had no idea how to get there. When I figured out how much I genuinely love editing, and I saw that Tim and Eric’s editors were basically writers and directors using Adobe Premiere, I was like, “Oh, this is what I’ve got to do.” It was the right time because that multi-hyphenate editor thing has been going on for a while, but it definitely blew up in the last seven years or so. I think I’m part of it.
Yeah, I really think you are. That’s one of the reasons I was so eager to talk to you — there’s a contemporary sensibility that you’re absolutely right in the middle of. And then with the element of confrontational humor where it’s like, we’re going to confront the dark things that are happening through this kind of work…. You obviously know all of this, but I appreciate what you’re doing. It’s a source of some comfort in dark times.
I try to never get too full of myself about what I do, but it just feels constructive, which is nice. And I want to feel useful with whatever I’m being creative with. That’s always been very important to me.
Material like this helps people feel sane because we see that other people recognize the insanity that’s going on around us.
But also on an artistic level, one of the most magical things about the stuff we do at Abso Lutely is that it respects the intelligence of the audience so much. A lot of it is lo-fi, and that shows younger filmmakers and creatives that they can do it too, and it breeds a whole new generation of filmmakers, which I think is great. That was definitely the case with me — the first time I watched Tim and Eric Awesome Show when I was in college, it completely blew my mind and I was forever changed, for better or worse.
It’s a feedback loop as these impressions and sensibilities bounce back and forth and amplify over time. We’ve talked about this already, but let me ask you my last question — can you tell me about something that has inspired you creatively?
I’d say my two biggest inspirations are David Lynch and the Wachowskis. David Lynch because Twin Peaks is basically a religion to me, in creativity and also in how it’s informed my queerness, because Twin Peaks had one of the first trans characters that actually portrayed us with dignity, in agent Denise Bryson. And the Wachowskis — I just feel they have been making some of the coolest, weirdest stuff for decades, and it all feels like a queer narrative to me. It’s impossible for me to watch The Matrix and not see it as a trans narrative, especially now. So those are the things that inspire me and inform my work and I revisit them constantly to, like, an obsessive degree that drives all my friends crazy.