'When They See Us' Editors Talk Time-Jump Structure and the Importance of Getting the Story Right

Terilyn Shropshire and Michelle Tesoro discuss how they and director Ava DuVernay structured the four-part limited series, transitioning from childhood to adulthood to tell the stories of the five individuals at the crux of the Central Park jogger case: "The goal was to honor the men."
Courtesy of Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix
Caleel Harris in 'When They See Us'

Ava DuVernay's When They See Us relates the true story of the five young men falsely accused and found guilty of a crime they did not commit in 1989, the Central Park jogger rape. Divided into four parts, the Netflix limited series, which premiered May 31, captures the unjust treatment they faced at the hands of the criminal justice system and the toll it took on them and their families. Two editors who worked on the drama, Terilyn Shropshire and Michelle Tesoro, spoke to THR about how they tied together the boys' journeys from childhood to adulthood and the ultimate goal of honoring the realities of their stories.

What approach did you discuss with Ava as you started the production?

TERILYN SHROPSHIRE In Part One, we want you to see Antron, Kevin, Korey, Raymond and Yusef living their day as anyone's son or brother; among friends and family until the moment their boyhood is obliterated over the course of a 30-hour police interrogation. Ava and I discussed the importance of reflecting the unrelenting intensity and pressure each boy endured during his individual interrogation while showing the collective despair of all five and the impact on each of their families. In Part One, we knew we were creating the tone and setting the emotional stakes for the audience to want to take the entire journey with our characters.

How did the storytelling evolve in the edit?

SHROPSHIRE Creating the narrative structure of the interrogations was the most challenging and, ultimately, rewarding part of the editorial process in Part One. In the original script, each boy's questioning unfolded in a more linear timeline. As Ava and I started to work on those scenes, it became immediately apparent that it was essential to show how each boy's interrogation had a cause-and-effect interconnection to the fate of the others as the detectives broke them down to implicate and build the case against them all.

What was most challenging in Part Three?

MICHELLE TESORO Maintaining emotional connection to each boy's experience throughout the episode, which in our case meant challenging the original structure of the entire episode. The initial structure as scripted began with Raymond, Antron, Yusef and Kevin as boys at the juvenile detention center, then goes back to seeing young Raymond in prison talking with his father on the phone, which transitions through to older Raymond's prison release, and after that meeting Antron, Yusef and Kevin as adults out of prison. With the exception of Raymond, Ava felt we were losing the emotional connection to the other boys' transitions to men. Ava and I worked through about four or five different restructures before we settled on one, where we jump in on a moment with each boy and their family when they are in prison, immediately followed by a scene where we see them as men and what their life is like after prison — similar to how we transitioned young Raymond to older Raymond.

Since the other stories of the boys were not shot that way, we had to find and create transitions from existing footage. For example, transitioning young Antron and his mother, Linda, in the visitation room, to older Antron released from prison greeted by Linda. I went off her voiceover, "You free, I'm free; you and me. Always," to a B-roll shot of prison barbed-wire, which racks to fluttering fall leaves that are the same leaves that are in the background in the next shot of Linda waiting on a park bench. We cut to the back of a man walking through a barbed-wire gate as he approaches her. The camera comes around to reveal this "new person," who we now understand is grown-up Antron.

How would you sum up your ultimate goal on the project?

SHROPSHIRE The ultimate goal was to honor the real men who lived the reality of the story we were entrusted to tell; we had to get it right. My most important mission was to know that when the real Antron, Kevin, Korey, Raymond and Yusef watched their incredible story reflected on the screen in front of them, we honored them.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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Igniting Time Loops and Time Bombs
Need lessons on how to make repetition feel fresh? Cue these three editing gurus, who crafted Russian Doll's numerous deaths, a programmer's creation of a choose-your-own-adventure video game and a war veteran's attempts to stop a bomb on a train. 

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Editor Tony Kearns says it was "daunting" to cut Netflix's interactive series Bandersnatch, which follows a programmer adapting a fantasy novel to a video game. It was edited with Adobe Premiere Pro, which Kearns says allowed him to "have multiple edited sequences open at any one time. That was very helpful in terms of being able to look at multiple segments." Netflix-developed Branch Manager software then allowed him to play back the work and see the various decisions. Says Kearns: "There were a lot of spinning plates — a lot more than a linear drama."

Bodyguard

For editor Steve Singleton, Bodyguard writer-creator Jed Mercurio's "master stroke" was to skip a conventional opening and start the BBC/Netflix series with a nail-biting 20-minute scene during which protagonist David Budd (Richard Madden) is riding a train and discovers a passenger wearing a bomb. "From the beginning, we wanted the viewer to understand that there were untold issues with David Budd," he says. "We opened the episode on a black screen with audio only of distant gunfire and war sounds that we were then able to segue into the sound of the train as it enters a tunnel, which enabled us to waken David sharply from his dream."

Russian Doll

The Netflix show that follows a woman (Natasha Lyonne) who keeps reliving the same night in her life and then repeatedly dying "was pretty well planned on the production side," says editor Todd Downing. It did, however, still require some tricky editing. "There were so many nuances," he says. "It was pacing and choosing performances. It's what feels emotionally right." He notes that episode five proved especially tricky. "We cut out two of the deaths. At that point the audience knew the language. We used a bit of shorthand, so it was not over-explaining. It was more interesting not to see every single death." 

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.