How 'Grey's Anatomy' Brought Kate Burton's Ellis Back to Life

Editor Susan Vaill explains how the veteran medical drama used flashbacks and old clips to tell a completely new story
Courtesy of ABC; Jim DeCorpo
"Grey's Anatomy's" Kate Burton with editor Susan Vaill (inset)

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the "Only Mama Knows" episode of ABC's Grey's Anatomy.]

ABC's Grey's Anatomy brought Ellis Grey back to life Thursday during a creative episode that featured numerous flashbacks to fill in the gaps of Meredith's memory and shed light on her new half-sister, Maggie.

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During the hour, the Shonda Rhimes medical drama filmed new scenes with three-time Emmy nominee Kate Burton that helped her daughter, Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) fill in holes in her memory to explain not only when Maggie was born but also what happened between Ellis and Richard (James Pickens Jr.). Burton's new scenes were turned into a vintage-looking video of Ellis accepting her second Harper Avery award and was integrated with flashbacks from the show's past 10 seasons. Together, the expertly crafted hour was able to use its past to tell a brand new story that has been hinted at since the series premiere.

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"We've known the Maggie storyline since season four; basically, since the beginning of the show," Rhimes told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of season 11. "I knew the Richard-Ellis love child was a storyline since I planned the pilot. … All of those moments have been seeded in. The dialogue of all of Ellis' love child is all planted in the show. It's not something that we have to backdate and go back and find. We've known about it all along."

THR turned to editor Susan Vaill — who has been with the series since its start — to explain how Grey's delivered one of its finest hours to date and told a new story using 10 years worth of clues.

This episode felt like vintage Grey's Anatomy with all those flashbacks. You must have had a blast putting it together.

It gave me chills to get to go back and explore that. The director is Nicole Rubio, who has been our script supervisor and played paramedic Nicole — for a decade. When all hands on deck are people who know the characters deep in your bones like that, you're going to get that vintage feeling. 

You've worked on Grey's since the pilot. Were you surprised by the reveal that Ellis and Richard had a love child?

Oh my God, yes! It was a complete head turn! It was wild. It's TV yes, but it's also fun that Grey's can still surprise you. I'm an audience member too, and we're sharing Meredith's perspective and point of view.

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Seeing all these vintage clips, the writing really has been on the wall for Maggie.

As an audience member, we're sharing Meredith's perspective and her point of view, so way back in seasons one, two and three, when we were experiencing what it was like for her to be the daughter of someone with such severe Alzheimer's, which is so sad, we were in that experience with Meredith and that was about her and her mother. It had nothing to do with anybody else, and that's why it was so amazing to go back to those clips and suddenly see them in a new way and realize that Meredith and Richard would be remembering those conversations in a new way. This new information suddenly completely changes the way they saw this character. Shonda realized we needed the audience to see the old Ellis and also get the chance to remember her in a new way, which Richard and Meredith were doing.

What notes did Shonda give you for this episode?

It was a neat experience. We turned in director's cut and the original script never called for flashbacks or any kind of memory technique. It was the end of the episode — the crux of the episode was Meredith realizing that she did have this memory of two different hospitals that she'd been in with her mother. Shonda realized we needed to focus on that struggle for Meredith to clarify that memory that wait, there were two hospitals she remembers: one was when her mom tried to commit suicide and the second was when the baby was born. As memories do, Meredith had jumbled it up in her mind that she was in a hospital once with her mom and suppressed it. These suppressed memories are starting to come forward and they're triggered by the little girl who looks pregnant and the mom was in denial that there was a problem and what we started in the season premiere with the carousel. She's starting to remember leaving with her mom when we showed those flashbacks when, in the season premiere, she's standing in doorway of her own house remembering the night that her mom packed her up and got her out of there.

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Did she request any specific scenes?

Shonda realized we needed to focus on this memory. I always had this feeling that Shonda would ask me to start putting in some of the footage that had been in the season premiere of the flashback to the carousel. Shonda also was so in love with seeing Kate Burton again. One of her favorite things in the directors cut was seeing the bookends of Kate Burton at the beginning and the end of the show. I felt the same way, which is why with the final shot of Burton I did this really dramatic push-in that hadn't been part of the original shot. I just wanted to be in Kate Burton's mind — and so do Meredith and Maggie. They're both desperately wanting to figure out what was going on in Ellis' head and Shonda wanted to delve into that as well. Shonda mentioned two Ellis Grey moments with Kate that she wanted to try and include: When Ellis tells Meredith, "I thought you'd be extraordinary"; and when Ellis is telling Meredith that Richard has left her and she now she has to raise a daughter alone and she questions how she's going to do that. When Shonda first mentioned it, I didn't even think about that she's talking about a daughter and it could be Maggie.

Did you sift through all of the Ellis scenes?

We found every episode that Kate Burton had been in in seasons one, two and three — something like 12 to 20 episodes. We sub-clipped every scene of hers, and I spent my birthday watching every single Ellis Grey scene, which was very intense and very emotional. I was blown away to go back and see these scenes in a new way gave me chills. To see Meredith, eight or 10 years ago, she's a younger person in her career. She's such a stronger woman now and can handle this kind of stuff now. It was amazing to see her character's growth in contrast to when she was a baby intern. I knew it would be really special to put that into the episode. I sent Shonda a cut that started sprinkling those scenes in the new episode and she loved it. She thought I went a bit too far and we had to pair it back a bit. At one point, we tried taking all of the '80s flashbacks out and relying on the older clips, but we needed Richard's story as well. It wasn't just Meredith wrestling with her memory, it was the story of Richard coming to terms with his agency in what happened to Meredith and his responsibility for the decisions that he made that then triggered decisions that Ellis made that impacted these two women's lives. It was important to keep his memories alive. We developed this fluttering technique of the memories flickering into full-blown memory, and then you'd get a snippet of a memory that informs these clips that we were showing. We were bouncing from 1983 to 2003 Ellis giving the lecture, to 2005 and 2006 Ellis in her final days with Meredith and Richard. And then there's Meredith's memories of 1983 to 2005 Ellis.

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It was great getting to see Pickens from early Grey's seasons and to see how much everyone has changed over the years.

It felt like giving new fans a moment to say, "Hey, check out seasons two and three and you're missing something spectacular and we hope you look at that, too!" It's an incredible reward to longtime fans and a trip back to see the extraordinary performance by Kate Burton and the introduction of a character that has been essential to the show.

Shonda mentioned to us that the Maggie story was something she's wanted to do since the pilot.

Wow, I'm stunned to hear that. I had no inkling there was a love child until I read the script for the season finale last year. I thought we concluded Ellis' story. This was a wonderful mechanism to mine the gold of our own past by bringing Maggie into the Grey Sloan fold. I love that Grey's doesn't ignore its own history. The current episode I'm cutting — episode seven — has this little moment where everyone toasts George O'Malley (T.R. Knight). It's sweet and it warms my heart and I know it will make the audience happy. It's not anything major, they're just reminiscing and he comes up in conversation. It's a quick moment that would happen in everyday life where you're talking with friends and somebody mentions someone and have a moment of memory. It's not a huge story point at all but it's a graceful way to stay in touch with the past of the show. 

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Burton returned in a very interesting way: An old video where she's accepting her second Harper Avery award.

Nicole Rubio was given that and it was scripted that we see Ellis in a lecture. She shot from several different angles. In my first cut of that lecture, I employed the use of the multiple cameras to cut from one angle to another. Nicole said to pick one and commit to it. I was thrilled to do that because it was wonderful to not cut away from an actor. I was cutting back and forth between Meredith and Ellis, and Meredith is watching it. But in the original cut, it was scripted that we stay on Ellis for that entire speech, and it's not until it's paused that we reveal that it's Meredith watching it. Eventually, we wanted to make sure the audience didn't get lost, and we moved up the moment of Derek coming in the door and Meredith looking over at him and smiling back at her mother. I was very excited we were able to do that. By moving that up, we reveal Meredith was watching her mom, and I was able to use some of the reaction shots of Meredith where you see her smiling in response to her mother. It's a way to continue the relationship. My mother passed away the year before I started working on Grey's, so the whole story of Ellis Grey is very personal for me. That experience of being someone who has lost her mother, I completely relate to that on a personal level. When your mom has been gone for a number of years, sometimes all you have left of her are these strange videos. You have to get what you can from that emotionally and intellectually. I loved seeing Meredith smiling and laughing in response to her mother, and in the very end of the scene, sitting down like a student and a teacher. I love that she's still trying to learn from her mother, even though her mother has died.

What did you think of the episode? Hit the comments section below with your thoughts. Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit

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