Lessons in Chemistry

ACE Eddie Award nominees Geraud Brisson, ACE, and Daniel Martens discuss the series finale, how they tackled montages, editing to the script, and more.

Today on Art of the Cut, we’re talking with editors Geraud Brisson, ACE, and Daniel Martens about their ACE Eddie nomination for their episode — the finale of Lessons in Chemistry. The series was also edited by Matthew Barbato, Laura Zempel, ACE, Jack Cunningham, and Lilly Wild.

Geraud was previously a guest on Art of the Cut to discuss CODA when it won the Oscar for Best Picture. His other projects include Camp X-Ray and the TV series Counterpart. He’s currently editing the TV series Shogun.

Daniel edited the feature Katie’s Mom and episodes of the TV series Suits. He was an additional editor on the feature Captive and the TV series New Amsterdam.

The TV series is based on a book. Did you read the book? 

BRISSON: I did not finish the book. Daniel and I met when I was hired to work on another TV series called Shantaram, which is also an adaptation of a very popular book, and I started reading that when I was hired.

I got about 300 pages into it, and it’s a pretty thick one. I realized how confused I was getting from the way the book was structured and written. The way Stave Lightfoot, who was the showrunner, was interpreting the book gave us the experience of the book, but basically, because it was such a huge journey, it was very different so that it would work for a TV series.

When I was hired on Lesson in Chemistry, I did start the book and I realized that I was having the same kind of problems. I was enjoying the book, but my mind was going against possibly what Lee Eisenberg was trying to attempt. 

MARTENS: I did not read the book, but when I told my mom I was coming on the show, she freaked out. She had read it. All of her friends had read it. Never in my career have I worked on something where it already had such a huge fan base, so that was a little intimidating but also kind of cool. You’ll interpret the book, and people will watch it, and they’ll have their experience of the book, and then they’ll have the experience of the film.

Lewis Pullman and Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry

It’s about 50/50 with the editors I interview, whether they want to read the book or if they want to stay as far away from it as possible.

BRISSON: I only want the material in my brain. I listened to the interview you did with Hilda Rasula about American Fiction, and she also said she read the book after the fact. I think it depends on how things progress. In this case, what was happening when I started was that Lee was still writing.

He sent me 12 pages on a Thursday and told me that I’d get the rest that weekend. So, knowing that and knowing how he was proceeding, I felt like I should be open to his read of the book. There are differences, clearly.

It sounds like you’re saying that the structure of the book and the structure of the TV series is very different. 

BRISSON: I don’t think it was so much structure than it was changes in characters. The character of Harriet was a different character in the book, for instance.

Montages always fascinate me. Can you tell me about the construction of the montage when the alarm clock goes off repeatedly at 6:30?

BRISSON: I’m glad you asked about this one because even though I’m credited on this episode, Daniel created this montage. The directors — Bert and Bertie Ellwood — on this episode had a very specific idea about using rhythm, using a jazz track, and punctuating every day as if the days repeat and the intensity of those days increases as it goes.

Using all those very rhythmic elements like the dog barking, the alarm clock, the rowing machine, all those things to create this passage of time. She’s chasing time to hopefully finish her research before her pregnancy is over. So that was the goal.

MARTENS: I had the direction that Elizabeth was pregnant, and she was almost racing against the clock like Geraud was saying. The first cut was a lot more visceral because of how I cut it with the jazz music — it built up this sort of emotional violence until the release when we see how far she’s come with the pregnancy.

Geraud watched a few times, and Bert and Bertie or Geraud gave the note that we should try to tie in the ticking of the clock, which was a later addition. The alarm clock was always there, but then we later tied it into Calvin’s stopwatch.

The hand is moving, and we cut to the clock on the wall, and it’s just a passage of time — not being able to finish what you started and the frustration of that. That’s kind of what I was going with that first pass, then Geraud took it over.

Lewis Pullman and Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry

You said, “The direction of it.” How did you receive that direction? In a conversation? Or a note before you started editing from the director? Or was it strictly from the script and from the dailies that you were watching?

MARTENS: Actually, it was not very clear to me how to cut it at first, and only when Bert and Bertie Ellwood came into the cutting rooms they explained what they envisioned.

BRISSON: When Daniel showed me the montage — which was in large part working already — what was not clear to me was the idea that time was passing and that she was chasing the clock.

We stole the shot of the stopwatch, which we used when she created the pregnancy test. Then we borrowed the clock on the wall from episode two. 

So they were not elements that you had to ask to be shot, and they were not elements that were specifically shot for the montage either.

BRISSON: They were racing the clock full time on set, so whatever I would ask for, there was very little chance that I would get it.

Brie Larson and Paul James in Lessons in Chemistry

What about the choice to jump time from the child being a newborn to seven years later at lunch with who you think is her daughter?

BRISSON: That was scripted. It was in the DNA of the episode that we would have this misdirect where you think this is Elizabeth’s daughter, but it later reveals that it is not her.

But tying it to the food, tying it to the hardship of growing up. All those ideas were already in the script.

Did you find that the timings of when the transitions happened between seven years later and the current time? Did that work out exactly as scripted, or did you find that you wanted to adjust when you went between them for emotional reasons or other reasons?

BRISSON: This episode, especially the transitions, some of them were tricky and some of them we had to really pick when we wanted to carry emotion across the time jump. So the way we left one time period and the way we got into the other time period, we wanted to make the outgoing emotion transfer into the next scene, carrying those emotions across.

We wanted Elizabeth’s struggle of the first month of being a mother to suggest that there may be a connection between that and growing up and the struggle of raising a child. We wanted to tie the mother and the daughter - already making that bond pretty strong. So carrying those emotions from one to the next was a key to making that bond.

Alice Halsey and Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry

Daniel, what’s your philosophy? Do you cut to the script, or do you realize that you need to change, and you just change it from the beginning? 

MARTENS: I cut to script, but I also use the script as a roadmap. Sometimes what they shot isn’t really what you’re envisioning on the page, so you cut it as close as you can - at least for my own work. Then sometimes, you’re gonna find pieces that are missing or something that you need to create to get from one point to the next. 

BRISSON: It’s an obligation to give a script as much of a chance as possible. When we watch dailies, I try to watch them with this empathetic way of seeing what all the possibilities could be, knowing the script but also considering: what if there are other possibilities?

But those possibilities, I keep in the back of my mind for the first part of the process and first try to stay close to the intentions of the script. I wouldn’t say that I would make big changes, but sometimes if I have an idea of how things could be, I would do a second version and only share those things when I start working with people. Or I would warn, oh, by the way, I try something different there. 

We work with a group of people — directors, writers, producers, and even cinematographers— who have dreamt of this project for a long time. They brought it to reality. When we receive all of this, it’s almost like this dream is confronted with reality, and now we have to build it back into a dream for the audience to experience.

We have to take the time and not skip the steps and embark on this journey with the people who dreamt it first, and that’s important to build that connection with them.

Alice Halsey and Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry

I’ve talked to editors about editing episodic television, where an editor’s been on a show for multiple years, multiple seasons. Is it different working with directors on something that’s a limited series where you work with the director, and then you move on to the showrunner? Is it similar on a limited series? 

BRISSON: It was always sort of that dynamic of we work with our directors for a certain amount of time, then we are going to spend much more time with the showrunner. But Lee also absolutely wants to keep the directors as involved as he can.

For the longest time, no matter what changes we made after our director turned in their cut, we were submitting them the cuts, and if they wanted, our director could absolutely chip in on what we were doing. It was the same for Little America as well. 

Daniel, can you talk about the process of working with a director? Uh, creatively or politically, knowing those things might change between them and the showrunner. 

MARTENS: On other shows that I’ve edited, it’s been deeper into the seasons — like season five or six or even eight — where the machine is so well greased that there’s no real leeway to do things differently.

But occasionally, you’ll get someone that will want to try something else. Sometimes their instincts are completely right, and sometimes it’s a little off. “Yeah, we can try it,” but you can also give them a little warning that it might change. It’s not really the showrunner’s style or how they like to do things, but politically you kind of have to do what the director wants. It’s their cut.

But also always keep in mind that the showrunner is gonna want it a certain way. You can prepare yourself for things like that. You can do your version where it’s closer to that. When you’re that deep into a season, your editor’s cut usually kind of tackles that. It’ll just go back to the editor’s cut. That happens quite often. 

BRISSON: There’s a lot to gain from listening than trying things and different points of view, that’s for sure. And as Daniel was answering, to realize that he has more experience working on series that are long-running than I do. I worked on two seasons of Counterpart, but I think that’s the only time.

Brie Larson and Stephanie Koenig in Lessons in Chemistry

Can you talk about what I call “the $8 montage,” where she keeps getting $8 from all the scientists? There’s a story point to it: “This is how she’s making money. But there’s gotta be an accelerating rhythm to it, right? Because once you understand the point of the montage, it’s gotta keep getting faster and faster, I would think, ‘cause otherwise, the audience is saying, “Yeah, I’ve seen this. She’s gotten $8 from a bunch of people now.” How do you keep that interesting?

BRISSON: It was scripted in that one of the scientists that came to see Elisabeth for help was singing that song. So, I had to find a way to fit this song in this montage, knowing it was a montage. Using a different score and then cutting to that song was always a problem. It never worked for me.

Matthew Barbato, who had started with the first two episodes, had used some tracks from this band. By luck, I found a version of the song that they did, so I used that and tried to time it with the part that I thought was the best when the scientist sings to the baby. which made it difficult because it also meant that I had to time the acceleration around that.

I had quite a lot of footage. What I was trying to base it on was Brie’s performance and how she had to be at the same time: a working mother. I wanted to see the tension between the two of those things, so I’d cut to the baby occasionally and make sure we saw her taking care of the baby.

At the same time, there was a lot of humor in her performance, reacting to the scientists. In the end, we knew we needed to end on the story point that her and Calvin’s research was being stolen by other scientists at the lab.

Brie Larson, Kevin Sussman, and Stephanie Koenig in Lessons in Chemistry

That’s the way that montage ends, right? It’s her realization. 

BRISSON: Exactly. Getting the montage up to a point where it feels like she’s getting on top. Things are getting better just to pull the carpet from under her feet. 

You mentioned Brie’s performance. Because she’s a scientist and because of her character, she’s very dry most of the time. Can you talk about either trying to maintain that or trying to regulate that? What kind of performances did she give you so that you could say, “Oh, let’s have her more emotional, let’s have her more funny.” 

BRISSON: It was pretty clear that this is a story of how the connections through the journey of life transform a person -transform the world in some way, and the people in that world, she is transformed by - the different encounters in her life. 

One of the early ones we see is with Calvin. It’s the first transformation that you notice - is when she opens up to Calvin, and when Calvin opens up to her, and that gets shut down very quickly. Then it starts all over again, but this time with her daughter.

She’s an amazing actress. There’s no doubt. Part of the attraction of working on the show was that she was going to play Elizabeth Zott. She’s a very exact actress. She knew exactly what she wanted and where she was going, and that was really helpful because we had those elements when we needed them, I believe.

We see her coming more alive throughout the show. From the first episode to the last episode, you see the transformation of this person

Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry

MARTENS: To Geraud’s point, she’s very exacting as an actress. Deliberate with her decisions. And in the dailies, you could see that dryness and the evolution of the performance. Seeing the cuts and seeing how she evolved as a character, you could see some of that brightness open up with the editing, but also in some of her acting decisions, it was a joy to watch because when I first watched some of the dailies, I thought, “Wow, she’s really dry.”

But then it opens up into something. This is an arc that you’re seeing. But we’re starting on episode three, so we only see this one little chunk of how she is. She really brought that performance and made it come alive.

It sounds like — because of her precision — those were decisions she stuck pretty closely to. Some actors would give you a range that you could then choose from, but it sounds like she knew where she wanted her character to be — or the director helped her know where she wanted to be — for each one of those moments throughout that arc.

BRISSON: There was a range. It is a project that she lived in almost more than anybody on this crew. I believe she had very specific ideas about who Elizabeth was. You have questions about the character. Is she on the spectrum?

Is she not? It’s maybe not the same range in terms of performance that we get, but you could modulate that in some way. She played it in a way where the element was there for you to see or not if you didn’t want to. You could interpret her character either way, and it works.

Talk to me a little bit about knowingly investing in certain moments emotionally earlier in the story so that that emotion can pay off later.

BRISSON: One of the themes of the show is this idea of connection — this idea that life is not the result of a single event. It is a series of encounters of accidents. 

When I approached episode eight, I had in mind that this episode was about the connections, and everything that we had drawn before was gonna be in some way coming to a denouement. But what was interesting was to see those storylines finally intersect.

A lot of those things that needed to pay off in this last episode did change a little bit from the script. It’s not always in a way that you may not even notice, but we did change a few things in order to enhance that element of it.

We worked a lot in the beginning. We worked a lot toward the end of that montage when she started reading Great Expectations in the classroom, and then we had the storyline in the middle of it.

We had her quitting the show, and finding a new sponsor. We had a lot to cover actually in that last episode for a finale, I thought, and part of it, was making sure that emotionally we would be satisfied. We had set up all those things, all the hardships, and some of those hardships continue.

I think all of this was part of what we were trying to achieve in our finale.

Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry

Talk to me about dialogue scenes where you’re trying to decide when to be on and when to be off someone talking. The specific scene I’m thinking about is when Elizabeth brings Calvin’s mom out to the lake to see where they had their first kiss, and the two of them are having a conversation. As an editor, of course, I’m struck by when you chose to be on Elizabeth and when you chose to be on Calvin’s mother. How do you decide those things?

BRISSON: In this case, we knew that there was a moment of decision for Elizabeth about her future. She’d made a decision, but also she was in the process of making it. What I remember thinking — especially toward the end of the scene — is that you have this moment between two women who live in different times, and both try to live their lives on their own terms and are not always able to do that. 

There was a moment of Rosemary, and it was interesting the way she looked at Elizabeth’s character because it felt like she was getting inspired by Elizabeth. I built it around that. That is where I wanted to land in that scene. I remember seeing the bond — a bond of hope and inspiration for one another. 

Earlier you mentioned how important it was for you to spend time working on that final montage when she’s reading from “Great Expectations” and we’re seeing flashbacks. Can you talk about how scripted those flashbacks were?

BRISSON: That was a journey. It was scripted differently. Some things were scripted. Some of them were left to her suggestions, but there were also elements that were shot for this montage that we didn’t end up using — one of them being that we saw the new host of Supper at Six.

Aja Naomi King and Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry

Oh, interesting! 

BRISSON: We realized that we had to choose what this montage was about. In the last two weeks of working on this episode, there were a lot of people with me in the cutting room. Lee (the showrunner) was there, Michael Costigan, Natalie, Sandy Alyssa, and Brie Larson.

So many ideas were flying — too fast for me to even take notes. We had a lot of different versions. I intentionally didn’t want to lose something or didn’t want to reduce the feeling that you may have at the end of the show about connections.

It is not about one specific meeting. It is not about one person. It was the sum of all of those things. Sort of organized randomness in all this and emphasize connections. 

To create that, I had to bug Daniel and Matthew Barbato, Jack Cunningham, Laura Zempel, and Lily Wilde. It was really about this sense of community and this sense of how things fit in this moment and not losing the sense that it doesn’t mean something. It is about the connection. It’s not about what the connection meant necessarily.

So I was asking everybody to come see different versions of this montage constantly to see where I was at, going back to episodes and taking moments out of everybody else’s work where I thought it would illustrate or bring you an emotion. I wanted to use images for the emotion they produced rather than for the information of the image. 

For me, this montage is really a little sentimental for me because it’s a little bit of everybody in there in the show. Everybody was working on this. I’m very proud that everybody’s in there.

Once we cut out the montage and show Elizabeth bring in the lasagna, the table has everyone’s potluck dishes. I remember asking everyone, “What do you think we can put on the table before they shoot it?”

Rainn Wilson, Kevin Sussman, and Stephanie Koenig in Lessons in Chemistry

So the editors had some input into even the production design of that shot? 

BRISSON: Yes. I wasn’t really asked, but Tara Mill is such a great director and she was so collaborative and so inviting of ideas.

It’s interesting that you mentioned that maybe you wouldn’t have done that with another director but with this director… 

BRISSON: When you don’t know someone very well, it’s always difficult to know. You don’t wanna overstep. This is not my first interaction with Tara. It was after many interactions with her that I could maybe suggest something.

MARTENS: What’s awesome about that sequence was that there is a version of that where we have Elizabeth reading from the book, and we see where everybody’s at like maybe like Harriet’s a lawyer, Elizabeth’s in the classroom, kind of a montage like that.

But instead it’s these emotional beats of how each character has reverberated throughout each other’s lives. What’s also really nice about that is that food creates that interconnectedness.

The way Geraud chose those pieces and assembled that sequence makes it all the more powerful. Way more powerful than if it was a standard kind of montage to just wrap everything up. That would have its own sort of impact, but not as emotional.

BRISSON: But we had to go through our own journey in order to get there, which makes the memory of it more meaningful to me.

Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry

Daniel, you kind of smiled the first time that Geraud said, “That a montage was a journey.”

MARTENS: It was an awesome journey. Sometimes, it’s all about the journey, not necessarily a destination. I come from music. I’m a musician, and part of how I got into this was through music and writing.

The first thing I ever cut felt like I was getting the same kind of like musical high I would when I’d write a song or something like that. It’s a lot like sculpting, too, in that way where it’s like you have these pieces, you have this chunk of clay that’s like your footage, and you’re just kind of like pulling pieces away. What it’s gonna look like?

So I’ve always approached creative things that you kind of try something, and it doesn’t work. You try it, and it’ll feel right, then you can start to think about it a little bit more in a kind of an intellectual way, like how Geraud approaches stuff. I’ve learned a lot from him. 

I noticed in some of the early scenes some jumpcuts. Did you watch other editors’ scenes to know “this is part of the language of this series?” Did you talk to the other editors, or did you just watch the episodes and know that was the footage that you had? 

BRISSON: It depended a little bit on where everybody was in the process. When I started and when Matthew was deep into cutting episodes one and two at some point, Laura, Matthew, and I had to cut two episodes in a row, and Matthew had the task of doing the first episode, setting up a lot.

When I started, he was in the process of doing this. I watched his episode knowing that things were still shifting, and I don’t even remember if those sorts of quick flashbacks of Elizabeth were there yet. I do not believe were in the first version that I saw. 

That being said, my first episode was the one from Sixthirty — Elizabeth’s dog’s point of view — which had to find its own language. Obviously, we talked with Matthew, but we did not interact that much at the beginning.

As we went along, and Laura came on and we were all also in the office, that helped the communication and the collaboration - when we were geographically in the same place, a lot more of that happened. Suddenly with the last two episodes, Matthew did episode seven, and Daniel and I did ours. 

There’s a scene from our episode that I moved into Matthew’s, and we had to borrow a lot from Matthew’s episode to work on the beginning of, uh, the finale with the whole storyline with Calvin as a child. In that case, we got to know each other pretty well. By the end, it was strong friendships.

Brie Larson in Lessons in Chemistry

What scene moved from one episode to another?

BRISSON: The scene where the preacher brings the letters that Calvin wrote to him. That used to be at the beginning of episode 108, and I believe it was Brie Larson’s note saying that it felt like we already were beyond that moment when we started episode eight, but we did need that moment, so to Matthew’s credit, he managed to make it fit so well in episode seven.

it was interesting ‘cause we had to use more elements of Calvin in the boys’ home — making it feel the same as what we’ve seen in 107, but still slightly — from a different point of view. So, it meant we’re sometimes making sure we use the same shot and sometimes using enough or different coverage to make you feel you didn’t actually experience it the same way.

Were there any scenes that you had to cut, and what was the creative reasoning for cutting the scene? 

MARTENS: Two scenes were cut. After Harriet’s courtroom loss, there was a scene outside the courtroom where she was just so devastated and so wrought with the loss. It’s a really nice beat with the family. I wasn’t privy to why it was completely excised from the cut, but I think we wanted to keep the emotion probably with her and Elizabeth.

BRISSON: The beat was not unlike the following beat, which happened with Elizabeth. That’s what was happening. It was a double beat, mostly.

Aja Naomi King in Lessons in Chemistry

That’s what I was thinking when you were saying that, was that it was a double beat. What about the second cut scene? 

BRISSON: It was Elizabeth’s decision process of finding a new sponsor and quitting the show. There was a scene to illustrate that process when — after the Christmas party — she was coming back home and opening boxes and finding Calvin’s old notebooks with science in them.

But it made it seem like Elizabeth’s decision was more about getting back to science. But her daughter suggested that she should be back in the lab, and that planted the idea. But we thought it was more powerful that it was her daughter who had suggested it, not science itself. The bond to science was linked to the bond of life, all of it together. 

Congratulations to both of you on your ACE Eddie nomination. What do you look at when you are judging? What triggers your decision to vote for another show when you’re watching it? 

BRISSON: When I watch something I’ll take it in: how did it make me feel like in the moment? What are my thoughts? Am I still thinking about it days later? That’s usually a good barometer.


MARTENS: For me, it’s: what is the visceral impact? Does it create something new in my mind? I’ve never really seen that before. 

BRISSON: I find it very difficult to judge the editing itself because there’s a lot of it that we, as an audience, do not know what the journey has been for our colleagues. There is no good experience of watching anything if there is not great editing involved.

It’s also if there’s almost a personal touch to it where whatever lingers for me for days or doesn’t leave my memory. It’s a difficult question to answer, but the unseen is as important as what you see.

That’s a great place to end this conversation. Daniel and Geraud, thank you so much for being on Art of the Cut. I really enjoyed this conversation, and I really enjoyed your episode and the whole series. 

BRISSON: Thank you so much for having us.


MARTENS: Yes, thank you.