Editing: HBO's <I>Euphoria</I>
Issue: July/August 2022

Editing: HBO's Euphoria

HBO’s Euphoria stars Zendaya as Rue Bennett, a recovering teenage drug addict who struggles to find her place in the world. The show follows a group of high-school students through their experiences of identity, trauma, drugs, self-harm, family, friendships, love and sex.  Euphoria was created, written and directed by Sam Levinson. The series is the second most watched show in HBO history, behind Game of Thrones and is nominated for three ACE Eddie Awards, as well as an Emmy for “Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Drama Series.” 

The show’s editorial team is made up of supervising editor and co-producer Julio C. Perez IV, ACE; editor Laura Zempel; editor Aaron I. Butler, ACE; and editor Nikola Boyanov. They recently took time to speak with Post about their work on the series.

Can you talk a bit about how the show is produced and how it has evolved?

Nikola Boyanov: “Season 2 of Euphoria was a major shift for us because we moved over to shooting film. Season 1 was almost entirely shot digitally, with some sequences shot on film. Sam Levinson and our DP, Marcell Rev, were actually able to convince Kodak to bring back 35mm Ektachrome so that they could use it for Season 2. Fotokem would process the film, scan it in and send us the media. The show was cut on Avid Media Composer. From an editorial perspective, it felt like a now rare and special opportunity to get to work with film.”

How does the edit team collaborate?

Laura Zempel: “The way our editorial team functions is different from any show I’ve been on. Because our showrunner, Sam Levinson, is incredibly busy writing and directing all of the episodes, we rely heavily on our supervising editor, Julio Perez, during the dailies process. Julio and Sam have worked together for a while, and Julio has a very thorough understanding of Sam’s sensibilities and taste. 

“During dailies, an editor will cut a scene, and once it’s feeling good we’ll show it to Julio, and he’ll give us general notes and acts almost as a Sam-proxy during the editor’s cut phase. After we work on scenes with Julio, we then send scenes to Sam as he’s shooting. It’s a very symbiotic process, where Sam can see how an episode is coming together while he’s still shooting. This allows him to make any adjustments on-set, and allows us to get his notes on scenes early on, which then informs how we shape the rest of the episode. It’s incredibly fluid, and it’s a real benefit having Julio, Nikola and Aaron around to watch early cuts. That way we can see how each of our episodes relate to the others, and find ways to differentiate one episode from the next while keeping the series cohesive. 

“I think we all love working in a highly-collaborative environment like this because it allows us to see what we each come up with, and inspires us to keep raising the bar.”

Nikola Boyanov: “As Laura mentioned, we would send a lot of scenes to Sam while he’s shooting, but sometimes he would request for us to cut on-set for a particular sequence. For example, Julio and I were on-set for the opening scene of the season in which we are introduced to Fezco’s grandma. I found the experience of cutting on-set thrilling because we were getting the footage right as it was shot and implementing it into the cut. Then, Sam would drop by to review it with Julio and discuss ideas that could make it even better. 

“Normally, we are a day or two behind production in terms of when dailies would arrive in the cutting room, but being just minutes behind on-set was extremely helpful in dialing in the scene on the spot with Sam. While we as editors typically spend our time in dimly-lit rooms, it was great to meet fellow crew members and collaborate in-person with them. Euphoria is ever-evolving and Sam created a space that is always encouraging of experimentation and sharing ideas. There’s truly a special energy you feel while working on this show and we do our best to bring that feeling to the screen for our audience.”

Music is an important part of Euphoria. How is it chosen?

Julio C. Perez IV: “Very carefully! Music is sacred to us, so we honor that by being irreverent. Despite our intensely-eclectic approach, we play it fast and loose and open in the early stages, then apply a rigorous, sometimes impossible set of principles that ultimately falls under, ‘but does it feel right?’ Sam Levinson frequently writes cues into his scripts, which will often make it to the end, but not always. Sometimes a different cue works better and knocks the first one – the king/queen – off the hill, so to speak. 

“Jen Malone, our music supervisor, does a terrific job of getting us fresh, exciting new artists and very cool ideas of her own. And we, as an editorial unit – with wildly varying taste, but a shared mission and a love of many genres – lay down all sorts of exciting, frightening musical ideas into our timelines. I often feel very fortunate how much music we get to choose and play with as editors on such a profoundly-musical show. But then comes the hard part. Does it pass muster?

“We want a music cue to display what I call, ‘multivalence.’ Does it ‘lock in’ on multiple, complex levels? Does it resonate, not only on a lyrical level, but also with the overall tone of the melody, the complexity or simplicity of the arrangement, the codes that you communicate with a certain genre or artist? Would our characters listen to this music? How does it shift the mood of a scene? Do the songs rhythms interlock with the visual rhythms? And on and on and on. It’s a pretty tight sieve that a song has to get through for us. Then we have to be able to clear it (laughs).”

Can you discuss Euphoria’s unique editing style?

Aaron I. Butler: “During the editing of the series we often referred to the ‘Principles of Euphoria.’ We use these as our guiding lights during the edit. These principles were first developed by Sam and our supervising editor Julio during the Season 1 pilot, then Julio continued to evolve them as he worked with each of the editors of the first and second seasons.

“The first one is to make it cinematic. We want the show to be complex, visual and layered. We may be making a TV series, but we always want to push to make it feel more like eight one-hour films, each with its own personality and identity. This starts with Sam’s scripts and we carry that into the edit. The beautiful poetry of 204 feels completely different from the emotional rollercoaster of 205, which feels completely different from the intricate play of past and present in 207. And it’s one of our biggest challenges in the edit, to make all of these different episodes still feel cohesive, and still feel like Euphoria.

“Another principle of Euphoria is to make it surprising. For every aspect of the edit, from a single cut, to which camera angle we choose, to a performance choice, to a music choice, to a sound design choice, we ask ourselves, ‘What would be unconventional and unpredictable?’ Sam and Julio are always pushing us and challenging us to make these bold and unexpected choices that you wouldn’t normally see in a television show. 

“But the most important principle of Euphoria is emotion. Euphoria can’t be defined by any surface feature. On the surface it’s a shape-shifter that keeps the audience on its toes. But we always make sure to maintain that emotional core throughout. We do this by focusing on our characters and really understanding who they are, no matter how many bad decisions they may make or how unlovable they can be at times. In the edit we strip away anything that doesn’t feel true to that character, and we make choices that reveal the full complexity of who they are for better and for worse. 

“The show is about loving these characters — that’s what’s most important. We turn our love for these characters into a visual and emotional experience in the hopes that the audience will love these characters as much as we do.”