<I>Reservation Dogs</I>: Editors Patrick Tuck & Varun Viswanath cut Hulu's third season
Issue: September/October 2023

Reservation Dogs: Editors Patrick Tuck & Varun Viswanath cut Hulu's third season

The third season of Reservation Dogs premiered back in August, with weekly episodes that depicts the lives of four Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma. Seasons 1 and 2 streamed on Hulu, and Season 3, which appears on FX, marks the show’s final season, with the teens stranded in California and trying to navigate their way back home. The season is loaded with road trips, unexpected fathers, boarding schools, rumors, revenge, healing and more. 

Patrick Tuck and Varun Viswanath served as editors on Season 3, having also cut Season 2 together. Viswanath also worked on Season 1. Here, they share insight into their efforts to showcase the significance of intergenerational relationships in Native Indigenous culture.

How did you approach showcasing the significance of intergenerational relationships during the editing process?

Varun Viswanath (pictured): “The writing of the story and the characters lays a very strong foundation for showcasing the intergenerational relationships on our show. The writing puts the different generations in the same conversation. In editing, we elevate that by creating a rhythm where the elders and the children constantly observe and react to each other — taking great care not to step over the line into patriarchal authority structures. I try to focus on balancing the presence of elders and younger generations across an episode and across seasons to support the idea that they all coexist as a community that has transcended bloodlines, and one's benefit doesn't come at the expense of the other’s. Our show has many ‘life lesson’ dialogue scenes, which are usually overwritten in the script. In cutting the lines down during the editing process, I favor leaving the life lessons open-ended with a touch of mystery instead of being prescriptive — leaving them open to interpretation. A big example this season was Deer Lady’s conversations with Bear in (Episode) 303 ‘Deer Lady,’ where a large chunk of her life lesson imparting to Bear was pared down to a minimum to allow Bear - and the audience - to reflect on its meaning without spoon feeding it.”

Patrick Tuck: “I think Varun covered it really well. Ultimately, when working on a well-written show with amazing performances, our job becomes discerning what themes and emotions we need to dial back or bring forward. And on Reservation Dogs, whose subject matter has such a rich cultural background, I found that we would have a lot of conversations about what was important for the audience to take away, both to understand the story and to digest the meaning of said story. Also, (co-creator) Sterlin (Harjo)  always has a way of balancing somber or serious moments about his culture with a moment of humor. I think it’s that pairing of respect with humorous irreverence that helped Reservation Dogs have a unique voice as a television show. We’re always looking for ways to incorporate that balance in the edit, whether it’s through restructuring the scene or making sure it’s tonally balanced.”

What editing techniques did you use to highlight the parallels between different generations?

 Varun Viswanath: “The choice of reaction shots is very central to showing parallels. Every opportunity to highlight a parallel, I hunt for reaction shots that show understanding and empathy from the ‘other’ generation, even if it was not performed that way by the actors on-set. In showing that one generation truly sees the struggle the other one is facing, we sow the seeds of the parallels in every intergenerational conversation. We also cut a lot of the scenes at a deliberate, measured pace to allow time and space for dialogue to sink in, in many situations creating more space than was performed on-set. The biggest opportunity we had for highlighting parallels was (Episode) 305, ‘House Made Of Bongs,’ - where Maximus’ elder Rez Dogs are in a similar life phase as Bear’s current-day Rez Dogs. The shooting and editing patterns in the scene with the football coach and elder Rez Dogs mirror that of Big’s scenes with the younger Rez Dogs in the pilot and many IHS scenes. The Sonic drive-in scene is cut very similarly to the Sonic scene in (Eisode) 103, ‘Uncle Brownie.’ Fixico and Maximus’ confrontation scene has similar rhythms to many previous Bear and Elora arguments.”

Patrick Tuck: “And those events that happen in ‘House Made of Bongs’ really set up Bucky and Brownie’s emotional arc in ‘Frankfurter Sandwich,’ which has them confessing their failures as Maximus’ friends to Cheese. In that scene, the camera is always moving, rotating around the circle they’ve created. For this episode, which I co-edited with David Chang, it became a balancing act of emotion. Each character is experiencing something slightly different, and it was important to highlight those emotions and specific moments to create the experience of a shared mourning – one that is touching, cathartic, and humorous. To achieve that (like Varun said), we use a lot of reaction shots to emphasize the older generations opening up to Cheese about their past and their regrets. At the same time, we wanted to maintain the feeling that we’re revolving around them by making sure the camera’s pacing matches the emotion we’re hoping to achieve, which was surprisingly difficult. But Mark Schwartzbard and the camera team did an incredible job, and the performances from Lane Factor, Wes Studi, Gary Farmer and Zach McClarnon gave us a lot of variety to make sure we achieved that feeling in the edit. That’s just one scene, but it contains many techniques we utilize to make sure our main character’s emotions and actions are contextualized within the emotions and actions of generations before them.”

Can you talk about the flashbacks on Episode 3, ‘Deer Lady,’ and how were able to cut with present-day moments to create a cohesive storyline? 

Varun Viswanath “’Deer Lady’ went through a great evolution from the shooting script to the final cut. In fact, I used this episode to teach a class on ‘Rewriting in Editing’ to my editing students at the American Film Institute. The shooting script was structured in much larger chunks of Flashback - Present - Flashback - Present. The transitions between them were well thought out both by the writers and director. In putting the episode together in the Editors’ Cut, I realized that while each scene worked well in itself, the flashbacks and present-day sections could further boost each other emotionally and rhythmically. In the director’s cut, Danis Goulet and I went through three restructuring rounds, splitting the flashbacks out of their scripted chronology and intercutting them where they provided the most emotional relevance. We also spent a lot of time rooting the flashbacks more strongly in the children’s point of view and dialed in the right balance of the adults in the school speaking in English vs. speaking in ‘gibberish.’ We had to reluctantly throw out most of the scripted and directed scene transitions, and find new and unexpected ways to cohesively intercut with the footage we had — one example being the cut from the axes digging the grave in flashback to Deer Lady digging into her pie with her fork in the present day. Another serendipitous scene transition was matching a head move between Deer Lady in the diner booth and Young Deer Lady in the boarding school mess hall, and using kitchen and cutlery sounds to bridge the transition sonically. In the flashback, we also held back the Koda introduction till later in the narrative to connect him more clearly to Bear when Deer Lady says, ‘You remind me of a boy I once knew.’ In the script, the younger Deer Lady escaped and transformed well before the present-day Deer Lady and Bear left the diner — leaving the entire last third of the episode running in the current time without any flashbacks. We spread out the flashbacks a lot to intercut Koda being dragged away to when she first sees old James Minor, Koda’s death and young Deer Lady’s escape and transformation right before she decides to kill old James Minor. Our goal was to use the flashbacks to emotionally elevate Deer Lady’s internal journey so the audience can viscerally feel the righteous justification for her killing James Minor, the Human Wolf. After one round of notes with Sterlin, our showrunner, I handed over the cut to Patrick, who took it to the finish line.”

Patrick Tuck (pictured): “When it was passed to me, the cut was really well-crafted structurally; it was hitting all the right emotional beats. But Sterlin and I were finding that, tonally, the present-day stuff was feeling too similar to the flashbacks. Deer Lady seemed very somber, which makes sense, but we wanted to see how we could create a different tone. Sterlin stumbled upon an artist named Mali Obomsawin, who has an album called ‘Sweet Tooth,’ which Sterlin sent to me and said, ‘I wonder if we can use this in Deer Lady.’ I listened to the album, which has some really interesting intersections of the genre to create a unique vibe, and I started experimenting with putting her music throughout the episode. Some spots didn't work great, others worked perfectly, and we ended up keeping a lot of it in the mix. Her music influenced how we edited the episode's opening because it gives this immediate feeling that Deer Lady is on a mission, which fuels the flashbacks and helps the pay off when she kills the human wolf. Sterlin liked it so much that our music supervisor, Tiffany Anders, reached out to Mali Obomsawin to see if she had other music we could incorporate. One of the unreleased tracks she shared was ‘There There,’ which ended up being the track that plays during Deer Lady's emotional resolution as she walks away from Minor's house. So it was Mali's music, along with Mato's incredible score, that really influenced how the edit was tonally reshaped once Varun passed it to me.”

Can you elaborate on collaborating with the sound team during the editing of 'Deer Lady'? 

Varun Viswanath: “We had a really great experience working with the sound and music team on this episode. I had put a lot of sound design work into the cut before it got handed over to them, after which our sound supervisor Patrick Hogan and his team at Formosa Group did an incredible job of using our starting point to create a haunting, creepy soundscape for the various boarding school environments. Mato Wayuhi, our composer, also took a wild adventure outside of the show’s usual musical tone to create haunting choral elements to round out the darkness in the flashback scenes. The sound design on this episode is especially dense, with many elements hidden low in the mix to make the audience feel the cognitive dissonance the kids were going through — like howling wolves, reversed church bells, and eerie whispers — and we worked with Patrick Hogan on multiple rounds of notes to dial in the right balance of all these different sounds.”

Patrick Tuck: “Director Danis (Goulet)  also had the actors who played the boarding school nuns speak in gibberish to convey the disorienting experience of hearing a language you don’t understand, while also perceiving their negative energy and abusive actions. Originally, there were more moments where we could actually understand what they were saying, but we realized that it was more disorienting if we stayed in young Deer Lady’s POV and rarely understood them. Additionally, we experimented with reversing the dialogue from the English-speaking nuns, which was then refined by the sound team at Formosa Group. There are only a couple of moments where we, the audience, can understand the nuns and we treat those scenes as more omniscient moments to understand shifts in the story. Another notable sound moment is when the deer spirit approaches young Deer Lady in the woods. The deer’s voice is speaking Kiowa, and it’s treated in an ominous way, but there are also some really amazing musical flourishes created by our composer, Mato Wayuhi, that help make the deer’s dialogue even more surreal.”

What is your editing set up?

Patrick Tuck: “We use Avid Media Composer. I love it because it’s a rock-solid program that is extremely stable for episodic work. It is versatile in organizing footage in the bin and on the timeline, which becomes crucial for editors when figuring out how to digest dailies. And ultimately, not to get too philosophical about it, but the software becomes our instrument in a lot of ways. Every editor has their shortcuts or a combination of effects to get the job done, and I’ve found Avid MC gives me the most flexibility to do so.”

Varun Viswanath: “As a team, we really like the reliability of the collaborative workflow while working with each other and our assistant editors, and personally, I will always keep coming back to Media Composer for its broad and powerful trim functions. Many scenes in our show are tightly-cut improvised comedy, and I feel the most confident dialing in the timing of every cut using Media Composer’s advanced trimming features, which can all be accessed entirely on the keyboard. Script sync is another feature I rely heavily on, especially to navigate the footage on improv-heavy scenes.”

What would you say was the biggest challenge you faced while editing this series? 

Patrick Tuck: “Honestly, I put a lot of pressure on myself when I started working on this show. I know that’s not an ‘editing’ challenge, per se, but there is a mental game that editors play with themselves that doesn’t get discussed very often, which I think is just as important as the practical challenges of editing and filmmaking in general. I didn’t work on Season 1; Season 2 was my first season, but I was a huge fan of Season 1. So, coming into a show that I already loved so much, I had this mindset of: ‘Don’t ruin your favorite show!’ I laugh at this now because Sterlin and everyone on this show were, and have continued to be, so incredibly welcoming and collaborative that it was an unnecessary amount of pressure I put on myself. It was Sterlin who really snapped me out of that mindset, and I’m so grateful because I was really able to be present and enjoy working on one of my favorite shows of all time, which is a dream come true.”

Varun Viswanath: “The show's editing work has always been rewarding despite the challenges in balancing comedy/drama/thriller/supernatural elements. The biggest challenge I faced alongside this show was being a new parent in the pandemic while working on a brand new show with a new crew. My wife was pregnant during the pilot, my son was just two months old when I started Season 1, and he just started preschool right as I wrapped Season 3. It's been an incredible but exhausting journey to go through these in parallel. I alternated many all-nighters to either deal with the baby waking up the household every hour, or working on an extra polish pass on an editor's cut before it went out. However, it gave me great confidence to see our showrunner, Sterlin, set an excellent example by making plenty of time for his young kids. I'm grateful to the entire team for giving me the leeway to set my own work schedule around my parenting responsibilities. At the core, our show is about the importance of community, friendship and family, and those values run deep in the crew as well.”

Can you walk us through your workflow and how you divided the editing responsibilities between the two of you?

Patrick Tuck: “As far as workflow, we get the dailies from production, and our assistants (David Chang and Marcella Garcia) ingest the footage and organize it. I have David make a multigroup for each scene and place markers for every ‘beat’ in the scene. Then, I like to watch all the dailies down and pull any moment that grabs my attention. I place those moments in a sequence and organize each little clip I pull in the order it should take place in the scene. This way, as I put the scene together, I have all my favorite moments ready to pull and place into my edit. This workflow also helps me because it’s the first step towards putting something on a timeline and seeing shots juxtaposed with one another, which puts me one step closer to understanding how the scene will work rhythmically. As far as dividing the editing responsibilities, we normally split the episodes in half: Varun takes the odd episodes, and I take the even episodes.”

Varun Viswanath: “After watching dailies, I open up the script sync'ed scene to assemble my first cuts. I tend to ‘fine cut’ right from the beginning, so I spend a lot of time on my first cuts and do a lot of my own sound design work. My assistant editor, Marcella Garcia, also takes at least a couple of scenes to cut per episode, and I try my best to work in the time to give her notes so she has the opportunity to refine her work. In fact, this season, she took a huge step forward by editing a first assembly on a full episode while I was on vacation — and did an excellent job! Unless the script calls for a specific piece of music in a scene, I leave the scoring to the last phase after having assembled the whole episode. As Patrick said, the two of us take alternate episodes, but this season, we also got to officially co-edit two episodes - 303 ‘Deer Lady’ and 310 ‘Dig.’ On ‘Deer Lady,’ I handled the editor's cut, the directors' cut and the first phase of the producer's cuts, while Patrick took the bulk of the producer's cuts and network cuts all the way to the finish line. On ‘Dig,’ we both split up the scenes right from the editor's cut phase. Beyond the ‘official’ collaboration, we also constantly share our cuts with each other for feedback or to brainstorm ideas for restructures or potential reshoots.”

Do you have a particular episode that you enjoyed editing the most?
Patrick Tuck: “I think my favorite episode to edit this season was ‘Send It.’ The episode, as a whole, hearkens back to the pilot. To have a dysfunctional heist all revolving around Big interrogating the Res Dogs was so much fun to figure out rhythmically. Directed by Erica Tremblay and written by Ryan Redcorn and Sterlin Harjo, we just had an incredible time in the edit — laughing, coming up with jokes within the edit itself —the bit with Willie Jack saying, ‘That’s not me,’ after we clearly hear her unique voice in the video, was a joke we discovered in the edit, and then making a u-turn for the emotional scene between Willie Jack, Bear and Maximus was really rewarding to craft. We had a lot of fun editing it, and I think that really shows in how it turned out.”

Varun Viswanath: “I have to take this back to Season 1 and say that I had the most fun editing 103, ‘Uncle Brownie.’ It was our first introduction to Gary Farmer’s excellent performance as Brownie, and I was laughing constantly, even while watching dailies. I immediately fell in love with the intergenerational comedy in this episode, and really enjoyed fine-tuning the jokes and working in as much of both Willie Jack and Browie’s improvised lines into the cut. Editing this episode was also initially intimidating because the director, Blackhorse Lowe, is also an accomplished editor. But when Blackhorse and I watched my editor’s cut down together, he was cracking up the entire time, so much so that we had to stop and go back a scene to continue watching a handful of times — and I will never forget how validating that experience felt. There were many tightly-cut scenes of absurd situations with five to eight characters, and I spent a lot of time digging for the right combination of reaction shots and their timing to make them as funny as possible. In the middle of all the comedy, we also have this great dramatic arc for Elora and Brownie, connecting over the loss of Elora’s mother, and it was really rewarding to express my own style in changing the pacing and cutting patterns while moving between the comedic and dramatic scenes. Most of all, I really love Uncle Brownie. He’s probably one of my favorite TV characters of all time, and I’m very grateful to have been a part of bringing him to all our TV screens.”

What is your equipment set-up like?

Patrick Tuck: “I work at home on a late 2013 Mac Pro. I know, I know, it is probably time to upgrade, but it’s really served me so well. Editing programs don’t require the latest and greatest equipment, especially on shows/movies where the online editors are dealing with the larger files and resolutions. We have the luxury of working with compressed media that’s easy for editing programs to playback. I use a small Wacom tablet and pen instead of a mouse, which is really convenient and avoids carpal tunnel. I have three monitors; one of them is my fullscreen playback, and the other two are for my Avid timeline, bins, web browser, etc. And we do remote sessions with directors and Sterlin via Evercast.”

Varun Viswanath: “I also work off a late 2013 Mac Pro — it’s been my pandemic workhorse. I also use a wireless vertical mouse from Logitech and a wireless Logitech keyboard that I raise at the bottom near my palm. It’s unusual, but I find this greatly helps my hands avoid fatigue and carpal tunnel. In my three-monitor setup, I have an ultrawide monitor in the middle. It’s great for a wide timeline window and gives me enough space for a 20-track audio mixer window above it. I use a BlackMagic UltraStudio Mini Monitor box to drive my client monitor, which I also loop back into an UltraStudio Mini Recorder box to feed my OBS Evercast stream (instead of display capture). I also have a 16-inch MacBook Pro on my desk that I use for Evercast and other video calls. As for remote editing from home, we use a Resiliosync/Mimiq workflow to edit locally on our own Avid’s off encrypted external hard drives. I personally find this setup a lot more robust than a remote desktop solution since I tend to notice even the slightest of AV sync drift. This was a workflow we first developed on the Reservation Dogs pilot - one of the first productions to start after the pandemic lockdowns in 2020. Since then, many editorial teams - especially comedies - and Avid rental vendors have adapted and improved upon this workflow on their own shows. Resiliosync keeps our hard drives constantly synced to a remote Nexis, and Mimiq (or Osiris for later MacOS editions) emulates Nexis-style bin locking and media creation features - so in effect, it feels like we’re on a Nexis, but cutting from local computers in our homes. Funny enough, both our assistant editors prefer remote desktop setups, so our vendors at Atlas Digital were flexible enough to set up a hybrid workflow where the editors are on Resiliosync and the assistant editors are on Jump Desktop.”