One of three editors on Sam Esmail’s Homecoming, Rosanne Tan was asked to tap into the visual and sonic style of “paranoid thriller movies [from] the past,” working within a broad conceptual framework set by Esmail, while trying to surprise him with the choices she made.
Based on a podcast by co-creators Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz, the series is set at Homecoming, a facility claiming to help soldiers in their transition back to civilian life. Cutting back and forth between two time periods, the half-hour drama’s focal point is Heidi (Julia Roberts), a social worker at the facility who comes to intuit a much more sinister agenda on the part of her employer.
Cutting four episodes of Homecoming, Tan played a pivotal role in shaping the series’ tone and visual style. After working on the third season of Mr. Robot, the editor knew Esmail’s preference for unconventional, unsettling framing, bringing that to his latest series, while trying to figure out an ideal approach to its many split-screen scenes.
First meeting with Esmail, her fellow editors Justin Krohn and Franklin Peterson and Homecoming’s post producer before a frame was shot, Tan’s task on the series was to think outside the box, approaching a genre Esmail loved in a way he had never before seen on screen.
“In other shows, people like to go for the close-ups. Here, it’s a little different. Sam wanted it to be as unconventional as possible, and I loved that, because we were forced to be as creative as possible, to be as different and unique as possible—but also, make a statement and tell a story,” the editor explains.
Earning her first ACE Eddie nomination for Episode 4, “Redwood,” Tan engaged in trial and error throughout her time on Homecoming—particularly, when it came to finding music for the series, and a way to integrate it into the cut.
Going without a composer on the project, Esmail instead provided his editors with a list of soundtrack albums from classic films, by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma and John Carpenter. In concert with her fellow editors, the Homecoming sound team and music supervisor Maggie Phillips, Tan would then take cues from completely different films—made by different directors, in different eras—blending them and cutting them to picture to create one cohesive, unforgettable sound.
“It’s one of the most creative things I’ve ever done. I don’t think any shows out there are like that,” Tan says. “It was a challenge for a reason, because it’s one of a kind.”
What were your thoughts when Sam Esmail approached you with Homecoming?
When Sam first approached me, I actually didn’t know anything about it, so I listened to the podcast, and it was really interesting. I knew that he was going to take it to another level, and when he spoke to the editors about tone—what he was going to do with the framing, [his desire] to pay homage to classic paranoid thriller of the ‘70s, and the music he’d like us to use—I just got the chills. I knew that it was going to be something amazing and creative, and then when the footage came in, it was like, “Oh my god. It looks so cinematic.” Mr. Robot is cinematic as it is, but there’s a different look to this—this thriller-esque, old cinema feel.
How would you describe the way in which Esmail tends to work with his editors? What did he convey to you about his vision for this series, early on?
Sam expects the editors to be on their best game. The good thing is, he wants to see creativity, so it’s not like he would tell us exactly what to do. He’ll tell us the tone; he described what kind of framing he’d like to do. For example, he told us that he wanted the phone conversations to be split screen. Then, [he asked] us to come up with the flow and the style of the scene. He’s a genius, so he has an idea of what he’d like, but then he also wants to see what we come up with.
He shoots every episode, and the entire season is block shot, so it’s not really conventional, like other shows are done. I would sometimes have three scenes from one episode and one scene from another episode, [but] a lot of times, I don’t have the full episode. He likes to see things right away, so we would try to make it as polished as possible, and then we would try different music. He wanted us to use old composed scores, so that was really creative and hadn’t been done before.
How did you tend to work with music in the cut? Did you know up front all the specific pieces you’d be using, and the scenes they’d be used for?
No, that was one of the most difficult parts. Going in, he basically described what he wanted—[cues from] movies [by] Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock. He mentioned all these different films, and then the editors started compiling all the [soundtrack] albums. We went into Michael Small, Bernard Herrmann, Pino Donaggio and David Shire, and we didn’t know exactly what we were going to use. Basically, we had to see the scene and tell the story as editors, and then present it to Sam.
I think there’s one or two [moments] where maybe he had something in mind. For example, in Episode 4, he had in mind that he wanted to use Amityville Horror for this box sequence. How? He didn’t tell me that; obviously, it was my job to figure that out. [With] the box sequence, [the piece that] jumps from one shopping cart to the other was shot first, and then the medicine was shot months later, so I had to first use that piece, and then later on I’m like, “Oh my god, how am I going to connect this?” That was a hard task, and then I went into the album and listened to everything from Amityville Horror. Like, “Okay, I’ve got to do this piece first, and then I can connect this piece. But I have to make the medicine cut with the music, and it better be good when I’m showing it to Sam.”
Sometimes, if he suggested something and it didn’t work, he was okay [with] abandoning it. But a lot of times, if he suggests something, it really does work, because that man is really a genius.
Homecoming features a number of stunning montages and fascinating visual transitions. Could you elaborate on your approach to the box sequence from Episode 4, and the shopping cart sequence from Episode 10?
Sam definitely has a plan [going into the shoot]. Sometimes, not everything comes together, but a lot of times, it’s a matter of, “It’s been planned; it’s been shot. Now, let’s put it together.” The shopping cart stuff in front of Geist, that was shot in the beginning, so I had that going into Walter finding the harmonica being taken. Later on, the medicine—the fruit—was shot, so I then had to figure out a [visual] piece to flow with the music. After I found the piece and how I wanted to glue the different scores together, I’m like, “Oh, then I’ll play the split screen of when this guy is grinding the fruit. That could [lend itself] to that churn, that old cinema feel, just like when Colin’s walking up those stairs, on this spiral staircase.” So again, it was more like, “How am I going to put this together, and how am I going to make this music flow with it?” Because if it doesn’t flow, it’s going to stand out, and he’s not going to like it.
[Having] the box go from one shot to the other was planned, but the whole medicine sequence wasn’t planned. It was more up to me and how I would present that, and I’m glad that it worked, because I was like, “There’s a lot of footage. How am I supposed to put this together?” I think the split screen was a great idea. I’m glad he did that, because it made me creative in thinking of how to put that together.
It was like a happy accident sometimes, but a lot of the shopping cart stuff was planned. [Some if it] was really meticulously planned, and then there were some things that [weren’t]. The car going into the shopping cart was Sam’s idea. Then, there were a few things that didn’t work out, so we tried different things, [including] moving the [shot] like a filmstrip. That was something I came up with, with my assistant editor, Zach Dehm. [For] the end, we created something [that looked] like a slot machine, [with] the image jumping up and down. I [initially] had a smaller version of that, [which] was like three shots, and [Esmail] was like, “Oh, this is a great idea. Make it more.” So, we made it even more crazy.
Sometimes, it was just trying different things and then expanding on it, but it was always his idea to stop the entire thing with a stop sign. That was so brilliant.
Did you have to sift through a lot of different footage to bring these kinds of sequences to fruition?
For the finale, there wasn’t a lot of footage. Sam knew exactly what he wanted, and then he wanted to try things. But there was a lot of footage for the stuff in Episode 4. Because sometimes, the extras didn’t push the [cart] on time, or the liquid going through the vial didn’t come down on time. There was a lot of that, because [the shots] were mostly inserts.
[With] the shopping cart stuff, it was more like making sure the timing of it works, and that was hard. My assistant had a lot to do with that too, helping me with visual effects and timing it as we did the temp. We tried so many different songs to that, too, and it was hard because you had to have the music hitting on the cuts and the wipes.
What inspired Esmail’s decision to have each episode wind down with a highly cinematic, mostly-silent tableau?
He wanted to create this real-time lingering effect—a subliminal message, so it’s not just back-to-back action. There is some sort of a cliffhanger feel to it—this subliminal, “something beneath the surface” feel, and I think that’s great. It doesn’t always have to be like other shows, where it’s like “Bam, bam, bam. What’s next?”
What were the biggest challenges you faced with Homecoming?
A lot of the music was so old that the music supervisor couldn’t track down the musicians. Later on, after the show had been locked, [she] would come back and go, “Oh, we can’t clear this. You have to find something else,” and then here we go again. We were kind of re-editing the scene now with a new score, and it’s not just as simple as laying the music in. You had to go through albums and albums again, trying to find the right piece to set the tone, and present it to Sam for approval. I would say that’s really different compared to a lot of other shows, where it’s not so busy with music.
It seems like you’ve become a key collaborator on both of Esmail’s series. You were entrusted with the first and last episodes of Homecoming, cutting four episodes in total out of the first season’s batch of 10. What have you enjoyed about working with him to this point?
I’m just so lucky to be in this state where I get to work on something so visionary, and he is a true visionary. I’m very lucky to have such material to work with. I came on board Season 3 of Robot and got the oner episode, and told myself I had to prove myself. I was pregnant at the time, too, so I was going through that stress, and I knew I wanted to work with this man. He does amazing stuff. I’m a huge fan of Mr. Robot, and thankfully it worked well, and he asked me to do Homecoming. I’m currently doing the premiere of Mr. Robot for the final season, and I hope this relationship continues. I find that I am very hard on myself, as far as what I present to him, but I hope he likes me enough to want to work with me again.