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[WARNING: The above interview contains spoilers about the first two episodes of “Lessons in Chemistry.” Watch at your own risk.]
Already in early discussions with showrunner Lee Eisenberg and director of the first two episodes Sarah Adina Smith, it became clear to editor Matthew Barbato that cutting the opening two installments of “Lessons in Chemistry” would involve a great deal of “experimentation.”
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“What Sarah did, and what Lee did, is they provided us with a great framework, and a lot of great material. And once we got into the edit, we were able to sort of play around, and we had the freedom to kind of find the moments that we needed, and the rhythm that we needed,” Barbato says of editing the first two episodes of the Apple TV+ limited series during a recent webchat with Gold Derby (watch the full exclusive video interview above).
Based on Bonnie Garmus‘ bestselling novel of the same name, “Lessons in Chemistry” follows one-of-a-kind chemist Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson) as she not only fights her way through the male-dominated science world of the 1950s and ’60s that deems women belong in the domestic sphere rather than the professional one, but is also forced to navigate the many curveballs that life throws her way. One of those curveballs comes in form of an unexpected romance with fellow chemist Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman) that unfolds in the first two episodes and quickly becomes the beating heart of the series.
“Sarah had worked really hard with Brie and with Lewis to really develop those characters’ personalities, because they are unique protagonists and unique characters. And so it was really [about] calibrating a really specific performance from each of them to make them really stand out and really be compelling characters,” Barbato explains with regard to bringing Elizabeth and Calvin’s love affair to life in the edit. Given the weight this relationship carries in the story, he and co-editor of the second episode Jack Cunningham took “a lot of time and put a lot of attention on how quickly to get to that relationship [and] how to preserve a certain momentum with it.”
It’s not long before Elizabeth and Calvin’s relationship, however, comes to an abrupt, tragic end. When Calvin goes on a run with their dog, Six-Thirty, at the end of the second episode, “Her and Him,” the dog distracts him by tugging on the leash after he’s already begun to cross the road, prompting the runner to be fatally struck by an approaching bus.
For Barbato and Cunningham — the latter of whom originally cut the shocking death scene — one of the main concerns was that they were already giving away Calvin’s fate in the direct leadup to the fatal incident. “We changed a few of the shots to just try and give us a sense that we’re just enjoying Calvin’s joy, that he was in that moment,” Barbato divulges. “And then, once [he and Six-Thirty] stop and they’re having the tug of war — that needed to be pretty condensed and pretty precise.”
How to execute the ensuing beats was a subject of discussion, Barbato reveals. He and his co-workers decided it would be more impactful to have natural sounds, as opposed to original score, play over the moments following the accident — from when the camera moves in on Six-Thirty to when the episode cuts to the end credits — but there was debate about whether these sounds should also remain in place for the entirety of the credits. “I felt like, unless we put in the funereal score, the audience might feel like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, is he still alive? What’s going to happen?'” Barbato admits. “That’s not a game that we wanted to play at that point. So the natural ambient sound was fantastic, and really affecting, but I thought, at a certain point, we needed to bring in some really sad music to let the audience know, like, ‘Oh, what we just thought we saw is what we really saw.’ And so I managed to persuade the room, because there was a lot of different opinions on that.”
There were also a lot of different opinions on how to depict the traumatizing sexual assault that Elizabeth experiences at the hands of her academic advisor in 1950. Although the assault isn’t shown until the beginning of the second episode, it is already alluded to via brief flashbacks in the first, “Little Miss Hastings.”
“It was a big discussion amongst everybody, with differing opinions about whether or not we were registering her trauma and her PTSD responses — and we wanted to make sure that the audience understood it,” Barbato recalls. “And I’ll be frank: I thought we had it with what Brie gave us in the original. And I was arguing a little bit that we should leave it like that. Once they shot and we tried it — and particularly on my latest screening of it, when we had a screening, recently — I was very affected by the flashbacks, and I am sold on it… It drives home the point; it spells it out a little bit more for people who might need a little bit more spelling out.”
In addition to the first two episodes, Barbato also edited the seventh, “Book of Calvin,” which will be released on Apple TV+ on November 17.
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