Erin Wolf on Editing “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”

Erin Wolf

Ever since its debut in October of last year, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Netflix series “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” has only gotten more bewitching as its plot continues to unfold. Hooking my attention from the get-go was the pitch-perfect casting of Kiernan Shipka in the title role, embodying the charm and resilience of her teenage heroine as she defies the stigmas enforced by patriarchies both mortal and mystical. Among the show’s chief strengths is its diverse ensemble, including Sabrina’s endearing boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch), cheeky cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), and school chums Rosalind (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (played by the wonderful non-binary actor, Lachlan Watson), the latter of whom came out as a transgender man, Theo, during Part 2 of the show, a nine-hour “second act” that premiered this past April.

Part of what makes the show so compulsively watchable is its editing, which deftly balances the interwoven story threads while keeping one’s anticipation heightened for all that will follow. So upon reading an excellent conversation with one of the show’s assistant editors, Erin Wolf, at Cinema Femme Magazine, I knew that I had to schedule an interview with the ace cutter as well. After graduating from the University of Southern California in 2011, Wolf has assisted in the editing of documentaries such as Robert Trachtenberg’s “Bing Crosby Rediscovered,” shows including Syfy’s “The Magicians” and Netflix’s “You,” and one of last year’s best films, “Blaze,” Ethan Hawke’s audacious portrait of Texas songwriter Blaze Foley. Wolf recently took time to chat with me over the phone about the five indelible “Sabrina” episodes that she helped edit, while providing a detailed look at her intuitive creative process.

Editing is my favorite part of the filmmaking process in how it’s so similar to writing. Do you, in any sense, feel like a co-writer of the work that you edit?

I would agree with you in that, just from its nature, editing is about assembling the story of a scene, and then the story of a TV show or movie as a whole. People have referred to editing as the final rewrite for whatever the project might be, and I would say from my experience in editing that this is very true. I’ve worked on projects both in film and television where we are initially working off the script in the editing room, but then a part of the script or its entirety will change drastically from what that initial intention was. This happens either because the director doesn’t feel like the way that it was shot really worked in the end, and they want to move a lot of scenes around to reconstruct the sequence of events, or they will go back and reshoot something. They might add a scene as well, which totally changes the structure to make it more aligned with what they think will be the best version of their project. So in that sense, editing definitely can be a rewrite, and there’s something fun about that too. It’s so interesting how you can change how a scene comes across by how you pair takes together. You discover so much in the editing room, and it’s really fun going through all of the different versions of actors’ performances.

Some actors will give drastically different performances from take to take, and others will give small variations because either they or the director has a very specific vision of how the character is supposed to come across in that scene. Yet there are times you make discoveries while onset, and you’re like, ‘I got the take that I was looking for, but why don’t we try out this other approach just for fun?’ Once we get into the editing room, we can take it down this path as an experiment, and maybe it will turn out better than what we initially had in mind. We get to play around with those extra takes in the edit, and it is pretty fun. I love how editing is like putting a puzzle together, essentially. You never know what you’re going to get based on what shots and performances you choose, or how long you choose to hold on particular shots, because there is no one right way to edit something. I’ve been working almost exclusively with the same editor for the last few years, and she has been awesome to work with. Her name is Rita K. Sanders, and she is everything that I could hope to be. It has been great to learn from her and to watch her process, while seeing how my own editing process has evolved through these years of working with her.

Has Rita embraced the role of a mentor while working with you, or does it feel more like a peer-to-peer collaboration?

I would say a little bit of both, but I’ve definitely seen her as a mentor to me. Our first show together was season one of “The Magicians” on Syfy, and I’ve been working with her ever since then. I’ve learned more and more from her as we’ve gone from show to show, but I also consider her a friend. We are both cat ladies, and we talk about our cats all the time.

Perfect for working on “Sabrina” together…

Oh yeah, that was fun. [laughs] I was excited to work on a show that involved a cat.

Has the puzzle-like aspect of editing made you more in touch with your intuition, both in terms of your work and other aspects of your life as well?

Definitely. It can be really difficult to teach someone how to edit because intuition is such a big part of editing. You either go into it already having a good intuition about how to cut a scene, and/or you spend a lot of time honing your skills and learning how to develop the intuition that guides your editing choices. That can come with practice, but it is a hard thing to teach someone because, like I said, there is not necessarily one proper way to cut something. If your intuition is guiding you, it’s probably guiding you in a direction that makes sense for your version of however that scene would play out. For me, one of the easiest tools to use in determining when I should make a cut is based on the actors’ performances. Maybe a character said something that makes me, as a viewer, want to see how the other character in the scene would react. Sometimes it is right in the middle of a character’s line, sometimes it is just after the character has finished their line. Then I’ll be curious to see how this new piece of information is sinking in for the other character, so I want to be on them for that. Reactions play such a huge part in the editing process, because that’s how your focus shifts in real life. When you are talking to someone, you are always looking at the other person to see how they are taking in what you’ve told them.

Your earliest credits as an assistant editor are music videos for Sigur Rós and Beyoncé. What was it like working within that medium?

Music videos are very unique because, for that medium especially, you have so much creative freedom regarding how you could edit the footage. Oftentimes the director will have a specific idea of how to structure it, but one of the most fun aspects of editing a music video is allowing the music to inform and take over how you cut something. You can choose to cut it on-beat, or ignore the music for the most part, letting the shots dictate how you edit. Sometimes you would have hours and hours of footage to choose from, which was fun but also challenging because out of all this great material, you can only use three or four minutes of it. When I spoke with one of the editors I was working with about the difficulty in choosing so few bits of footage out of so many options, she said, “No one else will ever know what existed beyond that. As long as what you choose are some of the best takes, that’s all you can do, because you and the director are the only ones who would really know what all those other options could be.” So you just have to sort of trust your gut in that sense.

How did your collaboration with editor Jason Gourson on “The Magicians” lead you to being an assistant editor on “Blaze”?

On “The Magicians,” we had three assistant editors, and Jason was one of them, along with Rita. In TV, all the editors have to try to follow a similar style for the show so that all the episodes seem cohesive, even though each person may only be tasked with working on three or four episodes. We would talk to each other about what was happening in our respective episodes, which is important to know because whatever story points may happen in, let’s say, the episode before the one you’re working on will help inform the editing or performance choices that you might make for the one you’re doing. Does this character already know about what was going to happen in your episode? If so, then they shouldn’t appear to be in shock when this plot point is revealed. We communicate about all that stuff, and we are friends in the office too. Jason was looking for someone who could come onto “Blaze” after season two of “The Magicians,” and his assistant was going on to edit another show at the time. That opened up the opportunity for me to assist Jason on the film.

It’s fascinating to navigate the nonlinear narrative of Blaze Foley’s life, as portrayed in the film, where the end appears built into the beginning, prompting you to note correlations between the past and present.

I loved seeing that whole movie unfold. The music really helped connect everything, bringing the past and present together. It was beautiful. My job on the film was to get everything prepped for Jason—gathering, synching and organizing the footage—so I wasn’t in the room when they were making all of those structural decisions. They did restructure a lot of things in whatever way they felt made sense to tell that story, and it really works. I think the structure of the script was more linear during production, and it changed a fair amount post-shooting, from what I recall. They took a lot of creative liberties with it in the editing room and switched stuff around to see what worked where. That’s an example of the rewriting process happening after the fact.

Though I wasn’t at the office when they were making those decisions, I think that the music had a big role in how they chose to order scenes. When editing for TV shows, we will receive a needle drop cue from our music supervisors, because we like to mix it up with score from the composer and some songs. If we know that we are going to be using a particular song, we’ll try to edit pieces of it on-beat or allow it to somehow drive the picture. But in general, it is the picture that’s driving the music, because you want it to ultimately be about what is going on in the story rather than what the music is doing at that point in time.

I edited an indie film that a friend of mine directed, and he is currently working on the postproduction sound and music for it. That is another example of a film that was scripted in a very particular way, and we tore everything up in the editing room, moving stuff around and reorganizing it. You often have to try a lot of different things until you find that one thing that works, and sometimes that means moving scenes around, sometimes that means just playing an entire scene in one shot. Sometimes editing is knowing when to hold back. Your brain may want to make cuts, but the performance or the story or the emotion of the scene is telling you, “Just hold back from that and let it breathe, let it play out.” Ultimately, you are serving the story of the film, so if that is what’s best for that moment, then you just have to let the emotion of the shot reveal itself.

Is there a particular example of editing that inspired you at a young age?

Growing up, I actually didn’t know that I wanted to go into editing specifically. I was really interested in directing when I was in middle school and high school, and the first movie I saw that got me interested in wanting to pursue film as a hobby and then make it into a career was “Titanic.” I loved everything about that movie, and it inspired me to write. I was already writing my own short stories at that point, but I decided that I wanted to try and get my parents’ video camera out and actually make one of my stories into a movie.

There’s a montage in “Titanic” that always makes me cry, when the violinists play “Nearer My God To Thee” as chaos surrounds them. We still hear the music as the film cuts below deck, where we see the passengers who are about to drown.

Yeah, that was such a good movie. Another one that always reignites my passion for pursuing film, and where every aspect of the craft works so well together, is “The Social Network.” That was a film in which the editing specifically stood out to me, and the music drives a lot of it, especially in that early sequence when the characters are in their dorm room and the social club parties are going on. When I saw the juxtaposition of those scenes and how the music ties everything together, I was hooked. That’s another movie that goes back and forth between past and present, with the courtroom proceedings flashing back to what it was like in college, when they were in San Francisco working on everything. The entire film is a brilliant example of editing.

As is the trailer!

[Caution: “Sabrina Part 1 & 2” spoilers ahead]

One of the most impressive aspects of your work in “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” another school-set drama, is how you go about balancing its ensemble, enabling supporting players such as Rosalind and Theo to emerge as fully dimensional characters rather than checked boxes for inclusivity.

It’s crucial that we do justice to all of the characters, to make sure that, as you said, they are fully represented in each episode. I think it’s great that all of the characters have their own battles that they are fighting, and they’re not necessarily all tied to whatever Sabrina is dealing with at a particular moment. Roz is dealing with her blindness and her faith in the church, just as Sabrina is questioning her faith, especially in Part 1. Does she really want to go down the path of night, or does she want to stay in her high school circle and not really confront that aspect of her life? There are also scenes in which there are a lot of characters, and from an editing perspective, you have to clock a lot of them, like in the third episode, “The Trials of Sabrina Spellman,” which is the first one for the show that I assistant edited. Sabrina is on trial and there’s a lot going on in the courtroom that you want to be able to follow, such as, ‘What is going through her aunts’ heads? What is going on with Father Blackwood? Are the Weird Sisters there?’

As an editor, I’m making sure that everyone is being represented, and that the viewer is able to tell how all of those characters are processing the information that is being revealed as the scene goes on. It is a lot of work to juggle those bigger scenes, but they can also be some of the most rewarding ones when you nail down that editing pattern of who you are looking at when. A similar sequence that I worked on was in episode 18, “The Miracles of Sabrina Spellman,” which is the one that I got to co-edit with Rita. During the scene where Ambrose is dragged in and he’s at the guillotine, we are trying to fake out the audience by hiding the fact that Sabrina is going to do something to try to stop his beheading. When it is revealed that she has manifested the Dark Lord, we have to cut it in a way so that the audience observes this information without anyone else in the room noticing it.

When I reviewed Part 1 for RogerEbert.com, I praised the scene in episode three where Harvey checks Sabrina’s body for a birthmark. The editing portrays this consensual intimacy in a way that is bereft of squirm-inducing voyeurism.

For each episode, we would have tone meetings before the shooting started. The show runner is on those, along with the director and other players in the crew, including the editors. That’s really when we break down the script and talk about how we want each scene to come across. I remember that being a scene that was discussed, and our goal was to make it a very sweet moment between these two fairly innocent teenagers. Sabrina has an innocence about her in Part 1, but it is not an innocence that keeps her from also having this very strong-willed aspect of her personality that enables her to go after what is important to her. I think she does a good job of balancing those characteristics.

The second of four episodes you assistant edited was “Chapter Eight: The Burial,” where you are able to bring out new fearsome shades of Sabrina’s character—reminiscent of Shipka’s galvanizing work in Osgood Perkins’ “The Blackcoat’s Daughter”—while somehow keeping her wholesomeness intact.

Episode eight included the funeral for Harvey’s brother, Tommy, and it is one of the most emotional episodes of the series thus far. That was a big turning point for Harvey and Sabrina, in terms of how they felt about where they stood in their relationship. Sabrina only ever has the best of intentions, and sometimes that can go a little awry based on how she tries to handle things. But at the end of the day, she only wants to do what’s best for her friends and her family. I really like that episode because it contained such raw emotions for her, for her friends, for Harvey. Her aunts warned her not to do anything crazy or rash because everything has consequences, but Sabrina thinks that nothing bad could happen. Then you see how that plays out in the next episode, when she chooses to use the necromancy to her advantage. It’s a trait that I admire in Sabrina. She is very good-hearted, but in Part 1, she begins to discover the magnitude of her powers, which may guide some of her choices in Part 2.

It must’ve been enjoyable playing with the conventions of holiday specials in “Chapter Eleven: A Midwinter’s Tale,” while accentuating the eeriness of perennial standards such as “Do You Hear What I Hear.”

Yes, it was fun because we got to play around with a lot of different holiday songs, while figuring out how to use them in a way that I felt the Spellmans would appreciate, even though they don’t believe that Christmas has a place in how they celebrate things. It was cool to explore a different type of celebration—the Winter Solstice—and what it means to the Spellmans and their witch community. Then we tie that into how Sabrina’s friends view her, because at that point, they have found out about her witch abilities. So from a character and emotional perspective, that was an interesting episode to cut. When Sabrina first goes back to school and she’s asking Roz and Susie to help her with the seance to contact her mother, it’s a difficult decision for them because they want to be supportive of their good friend, but at the same time, this is all so very new and foreign to them. They’re thinking, ‘How do we be a good friend but also protect ourselves, especially after what happened with Harvey’s brother?’ I understand their skepticism about that.

Would you know if there are plans to have more flashbacks to Sabrina’s earlier years?

There wasn’t anything other than that one scene that was shot as a flashback in episode 11, but if they went back to tell more of what happened in Sabrina’s upbringing, especially if any of it involved her parents, I would definitely be interested in seeing that. I was excited that Mckenna Grace was playing young Sabrina, because I had seen her in “The Haunting of Hill House.”

Like Chapter Five in Part 1, “Chapter Fifteen: Doctor Cerberus’s House of Horror” allows the main plot to be paused just long enough for us to be brought deeper into the protagonists’ individual psyches.

Episode 15 was actually my favorite of the ones that I worked on. I thought it was so fun to do these individual pieces where you get to explore each character so fully. In a traditional episode, sometimes you’re with Sabrina for a few scenes, then you are with Roz for a scene, and then you see what is going on with Harvey. But this particular episode was a great examination into what is really happening with each of these characters. I felt like you get to know them so much more by having those ten or so minutes with each one. When you saw the first part where Sabrina is going into her vision where she talks with Nick about the talent show, did you think that what you were seeing was actually happening?

One hundred percent. It totally faked me out, and I love when a show can do that.

Me too! When I was reading the script, I thought it was such a smart, innovative method to trick the audience into thinking this vision was actually happening. I like being with each of the characters for their own visions, brought to them by the fortune teller, and what you learn from each of them does kind of come back over the next few episodes, like what happens with Zelda’s wedding or with Roz losing her sight. Everyone gets their own piece of the future before it plays out over the rest of the season.

I loved the casting of Veronica Cartwright as the fortune teller, especially since Sabrina was chased by birds earlier in Part 2. What was her performance like take after take?

She was pretty consistent. Sometimes she might play it a bit creepier, and sometimes a little bit like, ‘I’m just a nice, older lady, here to have a fun game telling you your fortune.’ She did a really good job of walking the fine line between being nice and slightly unsettling. You’re not quite sure what her game is. Then, of course, you have the reveal at the end, where, lo and behold, she is actually Madame Satan. Up until that final scene, you’re likely thinking, ‘Gosh, what is Madame Satan up to? We haven’t seen her in a while.’ After the reveal, it all sort of makes sense. Madame Satan is a master at puppeteering people in a way that they don’t realize they are being moved against their will, and that’s exactly what she did for each of the characters through the fortunetelling.

The last four episodes of Part 2, including the one you co-edited with Rita, took the show to a darker and richer level of intrigue.

In episode 18, you really get the sense of ambiguity regarding whether Sabrina is a fighter for good or evil. It is going to be interesting to see where they take that in Part 3. I did like working on an episode that explores Sabrina’s powers on a much deeper level. I know that she must be a prominent person within the witch community because she has this half-witch, half-mortal identity, and that ultimately makes her different and special in some way, but in what way? That question is asked, in one way or another, throughout the entire season, and then there is the culmination of what her actual destiny is at the end. You’re left wondering, ‘What is Sabrina going to do, and how is she going to handle it?’ She has such powerful abilities that she could choose to take in a multitude of directions. I like seeing a female character with so much power.

The show cleverly skewers the patriarchal oppression of organized religion, blurring the line between the witch’s belief system and Christianity.

I think it’s refreshing to see a show like this really challenging those types of beliefs and opinions. Films and TV shows are ultimately a reflection of our society and the things that we like about our way of life, but also the things that we should be questioning. Television is such a great medium to get those ideas out there, and I think “Sabrina” is a great example of pushing boundaries. As Sabrina herself demonstrates, it only takes one person to start a movement.

Parts 1 & 2 of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” are available for streaming on Netflix (Parts 3 & 4 are currently in production).

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