Through the eyes of women, Mrs. America portrays the feminist fight for legalized gender equality in the 1970s and its unexpected female-led backlash. The hit FX on Hulu drama has a stellar cast of women in front and behind the camera, with creator and showrunner Dahvi Waller (Mad Men) intent on grounding the story in the toxic culture and politics of the era.
The nine-part series partially fictionalizes scenes and characters for creative purposes, and uses archive material to punctuate the drama and remind viewers of the story’s veracity.
“In my early discussions with Dahvi she was keen to use archive to ground the story and I think she liked that I had a documentary background to help flesh the concept out,” explains Todd Downing (pictured), ACE, one of series’ three editors. “In documentaries you get used to working without a script, so your mind is open to what you can do in the edit. I don’t necessarily put Scene A together with Scene B, but question where any scene can go or be removed or if entire sequences can be reshuffled?”
Coincidentally, Downing had just spent several months on a documentary project sourced from the Ronald Reagan family archive. It was useful research for Mrs. America, which, though it doesn’t feature the former President, does explain how a campaign to derail the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) paved the way for his election in 1980.
“Archive researcher Deborah Ricketts did a tremendous job in finding us a selection of material,” Downing explains. “We used some footage to establish location, some to move the story forward and some to add colour. It was tricky since didn’t want to use archive showing an actual character in case it bumped against our drama. Also, there were strict license rules from some archive holders about what we could and couldn’t edit.”
Much of the focus is on Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), a conservative activist and prominent opponent of the ERA. Downing explains that scenes featuring Schlafly tended to be shot on tripod or dolly and center framed whereas the energetic and socially progressive force of the liberation movement is photographed handheld.
“We had a visual language from the filmed material to start with and that informs the way you cut. It does feel like a different rhythm that naturally comes out of the way we tell Schlafly’s story versus the ERA’s. It’s like they are two different worlds.”
Another signature for the series is the use of split screens, a stylistic grammar that directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck with editor Robert Komatsu first deployed on the pilot.
“The wipes and corners have a very ‘70s feel to them,” says Downing, who cut his own split screen segment in Episode 6 ‘Jill’ for director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. “It’s a means of compressing story into a few seconds of screen time. My references were from Brian De Palma (Sisters, Dressed to Kill) with two different views of the same thing, one a little bit ahead of the other so you are playing with it rather than being prescriptive.”
A similar sense of experimentation lay behind Episode 8 ‘Houston’, an Emmy Award submission for Downing’s craft and a tour-de-force for actor Sarah Paulson, who features in every scene. Paulson plays Alice, a fictional character and cheerleader for the Stop ERA posse, whose experience at the National Women’s Convention in Houston is the bold choice of director Janicza Bravo.
“Sarah is in every scene and it’s all about getting in her head,” Downing notes. “Alice ends up taking a pill and downing some Pink Ladies, a combination which leads to a hallucinatory sequence. The pill is undefined, but we wanted everything she experiences to seem new to her when she’s tripping.”
The introduction to the sequence is a two-minute shot, which holds on Alice’s face while she makes a routine phone call to her mum.
“This is everything you are not to supposed to do — a long single shot talking about something really boring, in this case a recipe,” says Downing. “But when the pill kicks in you are cueing the audience that something is off.
“It’s a really brave choice by Janicza but we were far enough into the episode to give this a try. It wouldn’t have worked had we not had the performance from Sarah. A lot of times you are fixing performance in the edit but not here and that goes for performances right across this show.”
In order to display her drug-/drink-induced perspective, Downing employs jump cuts, shifts the scene order and plays with audio to enhance Alice’s heightened and erratic sensory experience.
“There was an order to how the scene played but we jumped around to find where the beats worked. We’re trying to stick with character and match her disjointed attempts to follow a conversation and not get tempted to do anything obviously psychedelic or flashy.”
The scene is a microcosm of the drama as a whole in that it always transitions fluently between comedy and gravity with the drama driven by character.
“For me, that comes naturally, whether I’m working on Russian Doll (for which Downing was nominated by ACE and HPA) or a documentary (Escaping ISIS, 2015; Secret State of North Korea, 2014). I try and look for the comedy amongst the seriousness. It’s better storytelling to mix things up rather than just have one flat emotion.”
A scene in ‘Jill’ where Schlafly visits the home of religious conservative Lottie Beth Hobbs (played by Cindy Drummond underlines this.
“It’s set-up as an absurd comedy with Schlafly sitting on a sofa directly opposite Dadie and we cut it almost like a sitcom, shot-reverse shot. The scene also has echoes of the Coen Brothers. It feels almost surreal, so gentile and yet there is this dark undercurrent.”
The final shot has Hobbs ripping the head off a red rose to symbolise her thoughts on abortion.
“The full-on comedy in this scene makes a later scene so much stronger when we find out quite how extreme Hobbs’ views are, such as that homosexuals be burned at the stake,” Downing says. “The comedic and the violent are two side of the same coin.”
Downing worked for seven months on the show, with Komatsu and Emily Greene, who each cut three episodes. “We had lunch almost every day and talked about everything from character development to music. We’d screen each other’s cuts for feedback and for knowledge of character through lines. Even though I’d read the script I needed to know exactly how we got from Episode 6 to Episode 8 and realised by viewing Episode 7 that I didn’t need to concentrate so much on certain aspects because they’d been previously established.”
Music supervisor Mary Ramos, who regularly collaborates with Quentin Tarantino, provided a vast mid-‘70s playlist, which the editors augmented with their own tracks. Downing proposed the lesser-known Abba track “Eagle” for the ‘trip’ scene but found it played too much like a music video and used Kris Bowers’ score instead.
In another piece of serendipity, Downing says he grew up in downstate Illinois similar to where Phyliss Schlafly lived and ran her populist campaigns.
“The world of Mrs. America and in particular of the districts where Schlafly lived was very familiar to me,” he says. “I’ve since become obsessed with all the characters, even those with as few as ten lines in the series. I’ve even researched some supposedly Christian books to find out if I’m going to go to hell or not.”