Editing: <I>The Crown</I>'s 'The Hereditary Principle' episode
Issue: November/December 2020

Editing: The Crown's 'The Hereditary Principle' episode

Morten Hojbjerg edited one of the most shocking episodes in Season 4 of The Crown. Episode 4.7, The Hereditary Principle, centers around Princess Margaret, who is at a very difficult place in her life — drinking and smoking too much, failing at romance and spiraling into a depression. But then, by coincidence, she discovers a bombshell dark family secret. 

For this episode, Hojbjerg wanted to strike a balance between truthful and brutally honest, while also respecting that the episode deals with real figures and their lives.  He also worked to convey the emotional state Princess Margaret was in at the time by editing the episode in a way that the audience would experience the world from her point of view.

Here, he talks about his time in the cutting room, which spanned six months, and how he used his editing style to emphasize the complex emotions of Princess Margaret at this time.

You edited Episode 7, which is a huge one for this season of The Crown. How long did it take you and what did your workflow look like? 

“I was working on the episode for about six months. The first part was about keeping up with the shoot and giving feedback to my amazing director Jessica Hobbs to make sure that we were covered and that the scenes were conveying the story in the way it was intended. Once the shoot was done, it was very much down to basically just refining the scenes, slowly carving out the characters and the storyline, and making everything more precise and to the point. The luxury in this show is that the actors —  and in my episode especially Helena Bonham-Carter — are so absolutely brilliant and that Peter Morgan is extremely precise in his writing. There was a great eagerness to experiment and try out new ways of telling the story, both from our great showrunner Peter Morgan and from Jessica Hobbs, so it was a very harmonious process actually. I guess that comes from the security it gives you to have a really solid script and great performances throughout. If you are not facing big structural problems inherited from a script that is perhaps not entirely waterproof, you are free to try out things and really just focus on making everything better and more precise.

“The key, in my experience, is to always work from a solid script. In most cases, if there are underlying problems in the script, they will follow you to the editing room. Very rarely, if ever, are problematic scripts solved while shooting. And you can easily end up spending your time and energy in the edit solving problems instead of refining and perfecting something that is already good. But sometimes, if you are lucky, you get scripts that just flow, like this one did, and you can spend your energy on just strengthening and refining.”

What was your main focus when editing this episode?

“The main goal for the episode was to convey the emotional landscape of Princess Margaret as precisely and as clear as possible. So I was trying in every scene to make it her subjective experience. Everything that happens in the episode is there because it tells us something about her state of mind or adds layers to her subjective experience. The themes of isolation and rejection that run underneath every scene [were] really the backbone and the guiding light for every decision I made — finding expressions both within her and in the outside world she faces and constantly bumps up against.”

Were you working on this during the pandemic, and did that affect your process?

“Very early in the process we faced the nationwide lockdown, which meant we could no longer meet physically or even individually go to the editing rooms in Soho. That meant we had to stay home and apart for pretty much the entire fine cut. Luckily we managed to finish the shoot before the lockdown was imposed and at that point I had a full assembly of the episode.”

What was your equipment set up?

“I already had a full editing setup at home, so in terms of editing equipment, there was not much of a difference. But in addition to that, we had this brilliant piece of equipment installed that allowed me to work with the director as if we were in the same room — or as close to that as possible. It allowed me to stream my video and audio output directly to her live without any delay. I could press play on my system and she could effectively see the same as me. That definitely saved us a lot of time and headache. At the same time, we would be on FaceTime so that we could keep the conversation going. Not exactly like being in a room together, but close enough for it to work out.”

What would you say was the most challenging part of editing this episode? 

“I think the biggest gamble on this episode was the decision to cast real people and not professionally-seasoned actors in the roles of the two cousins, Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon. But at the same time it was also the key to making a really powerful episode. I think the truthful way in which the two actresses play the parts of Katherine and Nerissa, how they interpret and convey the cousins' stories is absolutely phenomenal and heartbreaking. I think they brought a warmth and a sense of realism to the project that really made this whole thing come alive and stand out.”

The Crown is different from a lot of shows in the sense that it deals with real people’s lives. Did that affect how you edited the episode?

“When you are dealing with real people you have a certain responsibility to be truthful to them and their stories. You have a responsibility to be fair in the way you describe their lives, and when you put words in their mouths, as you inevitably do, you have to make sure those words ring true. When dealing with the royal family I think it’s fair to say there's an extra layer of scrutiny to be expected. So you can’t just exaggerate something to make a point or to make the plot run more smoothly. In this episode we had this beautiful scene where Prince Edward, who is coming of age and therefore suddenly outranks Princess Margaret, is having his ceremonial inauguration. In the scene, which takes place in a church, Princess Margaret is walking down the aisle to find her place among the common people. Afterwards the rest of the royal family enters and takes their places opposite her at the royal gallery. They are all in full ceremonial outfits while she is wearing a civil dress. From a pure cinematic standpoint, it would arguably have been better if Princess Margaret had entered last. Then she would have had to walk past her family and their royal positions to find her place, degraded and stripped of her titles. One could imagine a few good shots of Princess Margaret glancing at her family while walking past them. But because this is not how it’s actually done in real life, we couldn't do that. We had to stick to the correct order of entry. When dealing with this material it is very important to be as close to the truth as possible. People watching the show at home have to feel certain that the scenes and stories we tell are what actually happened.”

Clearly, Princess Margaret is dealing with a lot, from the arrival of Diana to her failing romances and everything in between. How did the edit convey the complex emotions she was going through at the time?

“Actually, I very rarely think of editing as having a certain style of concept. For me it’s very much about the characters. They lead the way and it’s all about being open to the performances and mental landscapes they are in. You ask yourself lots of questions along the way, trying to get inside the head of the character you are attempting to portray. You try to gain access to the deep corners of the character’s mind so that you are able to answer all of your own questions before you can really attempt to tell the story in any meaningful way.”

This episode reveals a shocking royal secret that many people didn’t know about? 

“I hope it will shock people. It most definitely shocked me when I first read the script. I hope it will make people think about how we treat each other more generally. How we treat people that seem odd to us, different from us or from what we perceive as normal. These two cousins were basically only hidden away because members of the royal family were afraid of what people would think. They were hidden away from public sight out of fear of the stigma that mental health issues had at the time. I think in many ways those same stigmas are very much alive and thriving today. It’s heartbreaking to think how very different their lives could have been if the world had been more accepting of people with alternative abilities. 

“This episode is very much a standout episode in the way it doesn't deal with the frenzy surrounding Diana and Margaret Thatcher, the two new characters entering the arena in this season. But in a way it shares similar themes of belonging, rejection and identity with the season as a whole. It offers a different perspective, away from the limelight and toward the people left behind.”