<I>The Undoing</I>: Ben Lester, ACE, cuts HBO's 6-part series
Issue: November/December 2020

The Undoing: Ben Lester, ACE, cuts HBO's 6-part series

The Undoing is a six-part dramatic/suspense series that premiered on HBO in October, rolling out a new episode each Sunday night and concluding on November 29th. The series stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant as Grace and Jonathan Fraser, a well-off Manhattan couple, both of whom have successful careers — her as a therapist and him as an oncologist focusing on children’s cancer treatment. 

As busy as their careers may be, both make time to do right by their young son Henry (Noah Jupe), who attends a prestigious private school in the city. Much of the couple's social life revolves around school events and fundraisers, with Grace’s father — played by Donald Sutherland — being a major donor. After one such event, a student’s mother is found murdered, and leads point to Jonathan as the prime suspect once an affair is revealed. 

While the infidelity strains their marriage and hurts the couple’s son, Jonathan is adamant that he is not the killer. The series plays out with several twists that leave the audience questioning his innocence and others’ involvement, up until the finale.

London-based editor Ben Lester, ACE, cut the entire six-hour series, continuing a relationship with director Susanne Bier that dates back to 2015, when he collaborated with her on The Night Manager for AMC and BBC, and again in 2018 on the Netflix feature Birdbox.

“That was huge fun,” he says of the Netflix feature. “And then basically, when we were doing Birdbox, The Undoing came up. David E. Kelley. Nicole Kidman. Do I want to go to New York for five months? Yes, that sounds great!”

Lester (pictured) says he knew from the outset that The Undoing would be a six-part series, all shot at once, much like a feature film.
“The great thing about Susanne is that she always insists that I am out on-set,” he explains. “It has plus and minuses. The plus is I get to go out to New York for five months, where I’ve never actually been before.”

The series was shot from March through July of 2019, and was well into post production when the pandemic hit, causing a delay to its initially-scheduled May release.

“We locked this back in January, right in the beginning of the year,” recalls Lester. “Then COVID came along. We mixed (Episodes) 1 to 3. We didn’t have a score yet for (Episodes) 4 through 6. Everything was shut down. We didn’t have a title sequence. We couldn’t finish it on time.”

A one-day shoot in London gave Lester what he needed to create the series' open. The slow-motion sequence features a little girl playing, her red hair blows as she chases bubbles, all to Nicole Kidman’s rendition of “Dream A Little Dream Of Me”. 

“Susanne had this idea of ‘childhood’, ‘innocence’, ‘dreams’ essentially,” says Lester of the open. “Her brief was that it’s the ‘dreams of children’. The little girl is supposed to be Grace, and her future husband.”

Months after the hiatus, Bier returned to the States from Denmark. Lester and the director spent time revisiting the edits for all six episodes in early August.

“[It] was amazing — to be able to essentially have five months away from it, editorially, and then to be able to watch it fresh,” Lester recalls. “There were the usual last-minute changes, but it all made it slightly better. It was a long time to be on it, but it was a real luxury.”

While in New York during the production, the post team was set up in an apartment, right near Central Park. Lester had an Avid system and would put together assemblies for Bier to review.

“Susanne wants to see assemblies once a week,” he explains. “She doesn’t want to see things on Pix. She wants to come in and watch it, and that is hard work, but it really pays off down the line.”

Director Susanne Bier on-set in New York City.

Lester had an assistant who would prepare camera files for him each day and set up bins. 

“I think it was DNx36,” he says of the resolution. “I try to stay out of that. I trust the assistant and the team to get that set up. 

“You can get a bit lazy, technically,” he continues. “At the beginning, starting out, you feel the need to be on top of everything. You don’t want to have any holes in your knowledge, or any kind of ignorance. And then the more you do, the more you can rely on people around you to sort that stuff out. Guiltily, I have kind of drifted away from knowing a lot of what is going on behind the scenes.”

His focus, he says, is instead on the story, the performances and making the film. The Undoing is mostly Grace’s story, presented as a focused POV. ‘Atmospheric interstitials’ — short sequences between scenes — help reinforce the upper-Manhattan location and the time of year.

“It’s mainly Grace,” says Lester of the storyline. “You are not jumping around to different characters or different plot lines. So to give it that space and atmosphere to avoid it just being scene, scene, scene, that stuff is so priceless. It gives you a bit of space to think. And the city that they’re in is a character — the seasons change and atmospheres reflect it. I am a big fan of those atmospheric interstitials.”

The series is presented in a 2:1 aspect ratio, giving it a cinematic look. Each episode tends to end as a cliffhanger. The following episode picks up exactly where the previous one left off.

“All the scripts’ endings were fantastic cliff hangers,” recalls Lester. “The only one that we did change was the end of Episode 2, when [Jonathan] comes back. Originally that happened in Episode 3, and in Episode 2, it was her thinking, ‘Where is he?’ It wasn’t quite strong enough for an ending. Luckily, Episode 2 came out quite short and Episode 3 came out quite long, so when we watched Episode 3, it was pretty obvious we were going to move the whole chunk of that from the beginning.”

Lester says it was Bier’s idea to begin each episode exactly where the last one left off, which became a bit of a signature for the series. 

“You didn’t need a recap,” he explains. “And that became a bit of a style. We had done that with most of the episodes. Not always. At least three of them started exactly where they left off.”

From an editing standpoint, Lester points to highlights throughout the series, including Episode 2, when Grace is wondering where Jonathan has disappeared to after being named a suspect in the murder.

“I remember putting that together,” he recalls of the scene in the second episode. “He comes back and you see him…or you see a shadow? It’s got to be him! Or is it? You see an arm. Then you cut to the wide (shot) and you see him run in, but she’s just paralyzed. And then he suddenly shouts. I remember doing that, and it made me jump! And immediately I thought, ‘Wow, that’s cool!’

“I love that scene, because you see him first. Traditionally, you might see him and hear him at the same time, and do a jump/scare like that…When we had our test screenings, everyone shrieked and jumped up. And I was like, ‘That’s great!’”

He also points to Episode 6 and its courtroom scenes, where Grace’s testimony takes an unexpected twist while on the witness stand. 

“I think I probably spent about a third of the time on Episode 6,” Lester recalls. “Episode 6 was the hardest. There is basically a 15-minute court scene in it, which I think is the longest single scene that I’ve ever done. And that was hard. It was a lot of work to just get the scene right. But the performances and the writing are outstanding, and that does make my life a lot easier.”

Test screenings, says Lester, proved to be an incredibly-important part of the process in refining the edit.

“You think something is working. You try your absolute best, but only when you see a real reaction to it from people who don’t know anything about it, are you, ‘OK, we’ve got this.’ That guided us a lot in the process.”

The Undoing is available for streaming on the HBO Max platform.