Streaming: <I>Mrs. America</I> editor Robert Komatsu
Issue: May/June 2020

Streaming: Mrs. America editor Robert Komatsu

Mrs. America is a limited series that streams on FX on Hulu and tells the story of the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The series stars Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, along with Rose Byrne (Gloria Steinem), Margo Martindale (Bella Abzug), Uzo Aduba (Shirley Chisholm), Elizabeth Banks (Jill Ruckelshaus) and Tracey Ullman (Betty Friedan). John Slattery plays Shlafly’s husband Fred, while Jeanne Tripplehorn portrays her sister-in-law Eleanor.

Set in the early 1970s, Mrs. America spans nine hour-long episodes, each focusing on the role of a different woman during the ERA movement. Schlafly represented the silent majority, while the others formed a new generation of liberals. 

After a series of meetings with directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and writer Dahvi Waller, editor Robert Komatsu (pictured) was brought onboard to cut three of the episodes, including the pilot.

“My agent sent me the scripts for the first two episodes,” he recalls. “The first thing I noticed was the cast...The second thing I noticed was most of it was being directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck — including the pilot. [They] had just come off Captain Marvel. And third: it was written and directed by Dahvi Waller, who I knew of from Halt And Catch Fire. I had done every season but never met her. I read it and thought the scripts were fantastic!”

The series began shooting in mid-June of 2019, and Komatsu — who cut Episodes 1, 4 and 7 — came onboard a week earlier for camera tests and to begin organizing the archival footage that would be incorporated throughout the series.

In Episode 1, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm announces her intention to run for President, marking the first time a black woman campaigned for the position. Using archival footage of Chisholm making the announcement for reference, the scene was then recreated by Uzo Aduba. Archival material then followed the announcement, with a reporter interviewing people on the street to get their reactions to the announcement.  

“We had researchers researching all this archival footage, and I got a ton of stuff,” Komatsu recalls. “That reporter seemed to be the most engaging. The people on the street had nice, succinct sound bites and you could juxtapose the people based on their answers to make this interesting montage of what people thought back then.”

The series was shot using Sony’s Venice camera, and the editing team worked out of Sixteen19 in Los Angeles. Dailies would arrive via Aspera, and then a team of three editors — including Todd Downing and Emily Greene — each cut three episodes using Avid systems. Komatsu says he worked in DNx36 resolution.

In Episode 1, Komatsu created a multi-window montage of Phyllis Schlafly sending out her newsletter in an effort to gain support for the anti-ERA movement. Directors Boden and Fleck called Komatsu to discuss the split-screen sequence.

“I made three concepts and sent them to Anna and Ryan,” the editor recalls. “[It went] back and forth, and finally we ended up with something that evoked The Thomas Crown Affair…with Steve McQueen.”

The screen makes use of different size, asymmetrical windows, with big areas of black in-between. In some, Phyllis Schlafly is shown writing and addressing her newsletter. In others, she is stuffing envelopes. Windows continue to fill the screen, showing her supporters receiving the news and reacting to her bold message. Ultimately, the center image of Phyllis grows, pushing all of the other windows off the screen.

“You use your graphical sense, and plug in shots, which is difficult,” says Komatsu of the sequence. “It was shot over two months, so I didn’t have a lot of footage yet. I had to create it as placeholders.”

He grabbed stills of Cate Blanchett from an earlier scene in which Phyllis meets with Barry Goldwater in Washington, DC. “Every time you wanted to make a change, it was completely tedious because shots are framed differently.”

But the final look was so effective that it became a signature of the series, appearing in subsequent episodes.

“Everything was hand crafted and shot over a series of months,” he recalls of the montage. “It made that sequence really challenging [but] everyone liked it enough that it became a trademark of the series.”

Company 3 handled online for Mrs. America, which launched with the first three episodes and then rolled out a new episode each week.