Today we have another In Conversation – this time with the man responsible for editing some of the best British comedy of the last few decades.
Shows he’s edited include Brass Eye, I’m Alan Partridge, The Mighty Boosh, The Thick of It, Veep, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, Smack the Pony and Fleabag as well as Ricky Gervais’s latest feature Brent: On the Road.
Ladies and gentleman, meet Gary Dollner!
Tell us how you started in TV and what your relationship to comedy was growing up?
I started making short films with a friend of mine when I was about 15. We both did drama and plays at school so it seemed a natural progression. His mum was a local teacher at a college and she got hold of this newfound thing called a VHS camera so we borrowed it and started making films. Then it sort of snowballed from there really.
It progressed and when I was going to university, I decided that I wanted to do a course that would be a degree but that also had an element of filmmaking. I went to Goldsmiths and did a degree there that allowed me to do TV and film. That’s how I got into it.
Did that comedy follow on into your work at Goldsmiths? Or was it more serious?
When I left, I didn’t know anybody. I had no connections with the industry whatsoever. I came out of university thinking I was going to be this hotshot director. It took me a year to get a job as a runner. I had to claw my way out from the very bottom which is dull and boring. I was quite desperate at one point, I thought “This is ridiculous. I spent three years at university to take a year to make cups of tea for people.” That’s the old-fashioned industry that we all know and love.
Looking back now, I’m a great believer in serendipity. There’s a lot of luck involved in life, when opportunities come along you’ve got to be able to recognise them and try and exploit them and make the most of it. The one place where I got this runner job, I hated it, it was horrible.
I was desperate to get out and six months into that, I met some people who were coming around to crew up for a show called The Word, that had already made a splash the year before. They were going for a second series and I managed to get on board that show as a runner and I did that for one series (a year). Then by the end of that year, I persuaded them that I should be cutting the inserts on the following series, which I did. That was my big break, I suppose!
I got my head down and showed them that I could cut a few things off my own back. They took a chance on me, It was a company called Planet 24, at the time, run by Waheed Alli and Charlie Parsons and it was all young people. I think everyone was 25 or below and he just threw all these young people together and out of it was born a chaotic live TV show. It was great and we did some quite good stories journalistically.
At the time, it was scorned upon as one of the worst television shows. Everything is context based. At that age, there was no better show to work on. Every Friday we used to go up to the studio and watch live bands. I saw Nirvana and great bands like that. It was a lot of fun!
Then I did four or five years of, what was called, light entertainment. I did The Word and Eurotrash and lots of those shows. Again, if you’re in your 20s, it’s quite good fun. I went that road for a bit. The good thing was that there was a lot of talented people who went through those kind of shows. I got a lucky break because one of the directors who I got on with, got a gig working with Chris Morris on Brass Eye and then he said ‘do you want to come and do it?’ and I said ‘yes, please!’ That was a break in terms of going into proper comedy.
I had no idea at the time how seminal that show was going to be. That was just an extraordinary experience and it was so groundbreaking in so many different ways. He was so brilliant to work with and for. I just learnt so much and so that was a game changer in a lot of ways really. I had no idea. I was still quite young then and whilst I thought at the time “this is really making me laugh and I haven’t seen anything like it before”, you never really know how a show is going to go out there once it’s released.
What changed in that transition between doing inserts and doing entire 30 minute episodes like Brass Eye?
Mostly it was inserts, they were the kind of shows I was doing. I was definitely ready to stretch the wings a bit. The jump in quality was quite extraordinary really. It was a lucky break, there’s no two ways about it.
How did you then get on to the bigger programmes?
I was working with Louis Theroux when I first met Armando because he’d done a pilot for a show called the The Armando Iannucci Shows and then went to series and I met him for that. That was the start of 15 years of fantastic work. I just worked with him time and time again.
That’s been a very fortunate and fruitful relationship. He’s like Chris, their minds are just on a different level to everyone else. They’re the sort of people you want to work with because you’re learning from them all the time. They’re forever surprising you.
What was in your head when you were doing all these big shows. Were you just going with the flow with what was coming in and how good it was?
I think I was at the time because it was all relatively new and exciting and they were very funny shows. It was a clear path really. Once Brass Eye had gone off then it was the next comedy show: what’s the next big thing? What’s the next funny show?
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to get on some good, funny shows. There was never a grand plan. It was more piecemeal, one thing leads on to something else. It just sort of loosely progresses like that and unpacks and unfolds. Things come along and then before you know where you are you’ve got a great CV of work four or five years down the line.
You might look back and think “this is a rich vein” but you just try and carry on and pick the next show that you think is going to be funny and that people will like.
Then you went on to do I’m Alan Partridge. Presumably that was through your connection with Armando?
Yes, I did The Armando Iannucci Shows which I think is one of the best things I’ve ever done. Unfortunately, it went out when 9/11 happened so it kind of sunk really without a relative trace. I just think it’s a brilliant piece of work and it was so cleverly knitted together. It did take a long time, as these shows tend to. We edit for a long time.
Things get better when you get longer to edit, generally speaking. With The Thick of It and Veep, often the scripts would be 55 to 60 pages long. A very good tight assembly is an hour long and then they have to go out in 28 and a half minutes so you’ve got to cut those assemblies down in half.
Often what happens is you take out all the plot because you want to try and keep all the jokes. Then you have 40 minutes of jokes that make no sense whatsoever. That’s where the game of edit Jenga starts. You start putting plot back in to the cut to try and give it some sense and some story arc. That’s a fascinating process and that’s what’s so brilliant about working on his projects because he’s got a way of working that involves experimentation. All of this does take time. There’s an alchemy but you have to find it. It’s not a recipe, there isn’t one set way of doing it.
Not many people work like that and I think probably a lot of it comes from his radio background. He’s got a way of thinking that’s very unusual and he’s got such a brilliant ear for dialogue. Part of his brain is a brilliant editor’s brain because he’ll often move things around, move scenes around, pull dialogue out and scenes will get dropped and put back in a different place which gives it a new meaning.
It’s a brilliant process, it’s also quite a liberating experience for an editor because you’re not following a script exactly to the T. Often you chuck the script in the air and you see how it falls. Literally sometimes it’s like that. It encourages you to do the same. In crunching down a very long assembly, you take scenes out then over the years you get more confident and you start moving stuff around. That’s a very liberating way of working but not for everyone because sometimes it can be a bit daunting. I’ve been doing it for so long now that it’s become a big part of the way I approach stuff.
I’m rewriting all the time in the edit. I think that’s quite a useful discipline to have and it’s creative. I’ve just done another project called Fleabag and I was bringing some of that enthusiasm and ideas into the cutting room there and that was embraced.
Was the system on Partridge and The Armando Iannucci Shows similar? Were both Steve Coogan and Armando involved in post?
Obviously they’ve worked together for a while but it was only Armando in the edit really. Steve came in once or twice. He’s got total trust in Armando. There were three of them writing it (Steve, Armando and Pete) but once it came to shoot and edit, it was just Armando.
Working on Alan Partridge, I absolutely loved it. I love that character! It’s the same with all of Armando’s stuff. The material that gets dropped out of those projects, any comedy show would give their right hand to have in their show. The bar is always set high. What stays in is often brilliant. He’s not precious with what he drops. Certain stuff I’ve fought hard for to stay in but it lands on the cutting room floor and he’s right.
Let’s hear about your time on Boosh.
After Partridge we moved up north for a couple of years. I had to let go of quite a few projects, Green Wing being one of them. When we came back down again that was a bit of a driver because the producer of Brass Eye was producing the first series of Boosh and she phoned me up and said ‘I want to put you with this director, I think it would be a good fit.’
I’d seen them at Edinburgh with their Arctic Boosh Tour and thought that was fantastic. You could really see it being a TV show. I had lots of discussions with Paul, the director, leading in to it because he was very keen – and rightly so – to have a lot of it happen in the frame because they’re such good performers. Drawing on their experience of being on stage together, it had a certain alchemy. If the performers have got it, you’ve got to let them run with it.
What sort of reading did you do when learning about how to edit for comedies specifically?
None at all. I’d been a fan of comedy, growing up watching shows. A lot of the stuff that I started with wasn’t anti-comedy but it wasn’t a traditional setup and punchline. A lot of it is spoofing. My background is documentary so that probably gave me quite good practice.
Way before Brass Eye, I used to flick between shows like Eurotrash and The Word and then do documentaries as well because I thought that was a way of telling stories across a longer form. The idea of debunking documentaries seemed such a natural progression. You know how to construct a documentary so to unpick it and make fun of it is quite straightforward. It was an instinct really for performance. That’s one of the biggest things. When you have 25 takes, you scan them all very closely and you gravitate towards the one that makes you laugh.
You can read books on that sort of thing but ultimately it comes down to sitting and watching a load or rushes. I write everything down and look for certain lines that I know are going to be funny, or should be funny in the script, and they’re the ones you’ve got to get the best take of.
You do get edit notes coming through saying ‘no good’ but you watch the rushes and there might be a look or 30 seconds of performance there and maybe a little golden nugget. You’ve got to trawl through absolutely everything and use anything that you think is over and above.
Performers are giving you stuff that isn’t scripted, it’s your duty. When a character is so brilliantly constructed and performed as Partridge is, it’s a lot easier to mine the funny because you know the character so well.
In my book, it’s got to be real because the moment the audience don’t believe something, you’ve lost them. Keeping it real is one of the most important structures. If that’s in place and solid, then you can take the audience anywhere you want.
You’ve done some TV movies as well. Can you tell us a bit about them?
One of the first feature films I cut was written and directed by a bloke called Johnny Daukes who ironically did all the voice-overs for Eurotrash. In the cutting room for Eurotrash, me and the other editors would always put in the guide voice-over for all the characters because they’d be German or Austrian. We’d get translations of the dialogue because it was being sold around Europe and the world you had to cut at the right point even though we couldn’t speak those languages. There would be researchers who would sit in the edit and tell us when to cut. So our paths met years ago.
I was thinking about moving into film because I felt like it was the right time to stretch my editing wings and try to work on a bigger canvas. He did this very low budget film and so I went and I cut that on Final Cut Pro in his shed at the bottom of his garden. Simon Callow was in it and Harry Enfield and the interesting thing about it was that it was all written in verse. It was a very interesting project that was a challenge in terms of the rhythmn of the language but had humour running throughout.
What changes for you when you’re doing longer edits as most of your work is on shorter TV shows?
It’s nice to get the time to tell the story. There are certain things that you sometimes have to rush through if you’re confined to 28 minutes. It’s nice to be able to have a broader canvas to work on. That’s the big difference, I think.
How did Brent: On the Road come about?
When The Office was being made, I was working on Armando’s shows. I worked on a couple of things with Charlie Hanson, the producer, and I suppose that’s how they got my name.
The Thick of It and Veep were two-camera shoots, classic cross-shooting and because they’re shot verité documentary style – like the look and feel of The Office – I had a very good idea of what he needed. It was just the right time and I felt like I was the right person to do that project. It seemed like a really good fit.
How much discussion did you have about the script and how it should be shot?
Ricky was going to do what he was going to do. In that initial meeting, I was asking him about he was going to shoot stuff and what the plan was. I quite strongly argued that he should shoot as much improvisational stuff as possible but he was probably going to do that anyway.
From my point of view, shoot as much as you can and if we don’t use it then we don’t use it but if there’s a gem there then we’re always up. I’ll trawl through everything to pick out any little jewels. I knew that the ensemble we had on board with him were going to work that way because that’s how The Office was. I knew that way of working from Veep and The Thick of It.
Was it a case of shoot and then edit or were you editing through the whole process?
As on any project, you start the day after they shoot. I was literally cutting day one rushes on day two and just chasing them really. By the time we finished the shoot it was just before Christmas and Ricky was due to go out to the States for a couple of festivals.
They finished filming around 17th December and there was me thinking that we would park it for Christmas but Ricky wanted to come in and we worked right up until Christmas Eve. I didn’t have time to finish the assembly before he came in but he didn’t mind. He just wanted to start looking at stuff. It worked really well because I put together a couple of scenes and suggested a way of weaving the elements (the talking heads, the scripted material and any of the improvisational stuff). Even by that point I think it was about three hours long. Clearly we had to find strategies to keep as much of the good material as possible but cut it right down.
I put together some ways of overlapping in the vein of The Office and we worked on that for a few days and he went off to America. Then we had a little bit of a template for how we thought we could move forward. That was a very useful few days and then we just carried on from there. He left me to it for a few weeks so we could get down to more of a workable length. I probably was keener to jettison stuff than him or Charlie really. It’s all part of the process when you’re telling the story.
Then we got to a stage where they wanted to do a test screening. That was a few weeks down the line, probably about halfway through the cut. They hired a cinema in Kingston with about 200 people attending. I suggested we record the sound in cinema for a laughter track and then we put it on to the cut so we had it as a reference. He often wanted to go back to that.
There were a few discussions around potentially opening up certain bits because there was a big laughter on that night. I remember saying no a few times because it was against every instinct I had after working on all those comedy shows. That’s where experience comes in, I suppose. With a lot of them you cut, you then play it into a studio audience, you get a laughter track and then you trim down. You try and smooth out the jumps in the laughs.
How long was the shoot and how long was post?
I think the shoot was five weeks. Then we had probably about 12-14 weeks to cut. It all got delivered on time and it did come down really easily. The big issue that was born out of that test screening – and something that we were very aware of already – was that everyone felt that we needed to get on the road earlier.
What are your thoughts of plot in comedy (some films are more episodic than others)?
It all boils down to good writing. When you read a script, does it grip you and do you find it funny? Are the characters well-fleshed out and do you believe in them? They are all key factors in whether you say yes or no to a script and the nature of the story.
The nature of the story of Life on the Road is loose at very best. We had to do a bit of jigging about because it’s not a classic narrative. There isn’t a beautifully sculptured story arc. It’s very basic. It’s very hard to compare something like that to something that is an intricate plot-driven narrative that happens to be funny. Every project is different and what you try to do is find the strength of that project and push it in that direction.
What advice would you give to an aspiring editor wanting to rise up the ranks?
Know the kind of shows you want to work on, the kind of projects you want to work on and the humour that you like. Have a clear idea about where you want to go. Try and get on projects that will allow you to work on those kind of shows.
There’s always new material and there’s always new people that need editors and DOPs and all the rest of it. I suppose it’s finding your peers that you want to grow up with professionally and learn from and teach each other as well.
Brent: On the Road is available on DVD now.
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