If you were to take an inventory of words used by TV critics to describe the Amazon original series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, terms such as confectionary and meringue are sure to place high on the list. No surprise, since aside from actual baking programs, no show on streaming is quite as dessert-ish as the hit Amy Sherman-Palladino-created/Rachel Brosnahan-starring period dramedy, whose third season dropped late last year and which Amazon is now heavily FYC’ing again in advance of the 2020 Emmy Awards, coming September 20.
Maisel has been nominated for a whopping 20 statuettes up and down both sides of the production line. And while the show is certainly nothing without its crackling dialogue and crisp performances, it’s the exacting detail poured into every inch of the show’s sonic and visual world that truly brings it to life. So we were thrilled, on August 20, as Film Independent Presents welcomed Maisel’s Emmy-bound artisans to talk about the show’s craft.
The Q&A, moderated by film critic Karen Peterson, included Production Designer Bill Groom, Costume Designer Donna Zakowska, Choreographer Marguerite Derricks, Songwriters Tom Mizer and Curtis Moore, Editors Kate Sanford and Tim Streeto (ACE), Production Sound Mixer Mathew Price and Supervising Sound Editor Ron Bochar (CAS). Watch the entire panel below and keep reading for highlights…
THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL
Mrs. Maisel’s Manhattan. Encompassing a wide range of characters, storylines and (increasingly over the seasons) locales, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel centers around Brosnahan’s plucky Midge: a divorced-housewife-turned-standup-comedienne whose frankness and ambition ruffles feathers among both the male-dominated comedy scene of late-1950s/early-1960s New York as well as her traditionally-minded Upper West Side Jewish family. Loosely inspired by the biographies of such legendary female comedians as Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller, Mrs. Maisel’s idealized portrait of midcentury showbiz striving is sparkling fantasyland of high fashion, swank clubs and dignified celebrity— which is why the look and feel of the world is so critical to its success.
Getting on the same swatch. Peterson asked Zakowska, costume designer, how she collaborated with production designer Groom. “We have a really similar color sensibility,” she said. With adjoining offices accessible only by traveling through each other’s space—and therefore past each other’s corkboards, each one pinned with design ideas from top to bottom—the two created a sort of artistic feedback loop. Said Groom: “It’s a collaboration of shared sensibilities, but it’s on the page. We’re all reading the same script.” The tone of the show is so well established, he says, that Sherman-Palladino’s sensibility informs even those elements which are not specifically referred to in the script.
Hear me now. With a show whose rapid-fire dialogue is such a critical part of what makes it successful there’s a lot of pressure on the men responsible for making sure that each word is heard crisply and cleanly. “It’s a huge amount of work to get done in every episode,” said sound mixer Price. “I [try to] bring as much of the performance as possible to our post-production people, because without their voices and all the words they speak, we don’t have a show.” Said Bocher, supervising sound editor: “The challenge from the very beginning was to make everything sound like a movie, active and alive,” managing to create dense, detailed stereo sound mixes within accelerated TV turnaround times.
Dance to the music. For Season Three—which finds Midge on tour opening for pop superstar Shy Baldwin—Sherman-Palladino enlisted the help of Broadway songwriters Tom Miser and Curtis Moore to help create a credible oeuvre for the (fictional) crooner’s onstage performances. “If you don’t believe that Shy Baldwin and his backup singers are real, the story falls apart,” said Curtis. Looking for era-appropriate inspiration, they drew from Johnny Mathis and Sam Cooke to help create Shy’s hit, “One Less Angel.” Equally important was the show’s choreography, which again called for a variety of numbers performed in different styles, spanning both diegetic stage performances and non-diegetic fantasy sequences. “Amy gave me almost every style possible for a choreographer to put on film this year,” said Derricks. But luckily, she said, “I know exactly how the camera is going to move before I start designing the choreography.”
Putting it all together. In the editing process, Sanford and Streeto say they typically alternate episodes—though they received shared credit on the season finale. But, having worked side-by-side for years on Mrs. Maisel as well as other projects, the two are used to sharing cuts and “coordinating the grammar we’re working with,” Sanford said. As far as determining what’s funny, Streeto said: “It’s all about that first reaction, what makes me laugh on that initial watch,” which is important to recall when viewing footage so repeatedly, he says.
Favorite moments. Peterson wrapped up by asking the panelists about each of their favorite Season Three moments. Groom said his favorite set to work on was Joel Maisel’s Chinatown comedy club. Zakowska loved working on the costumes in the Cuban nightclub sequence in Miami. Derricks loved coordinating the “I Need a Woman” number at The Apollo. Miser and Moore cited the insanity of the pulling off the season premiere episode. Price loved recording the live small jazz combo on the “Miami After Dark” set. Boucher, too, cited the dreamlike back half the Miami episode. Both editors said the season finale. So much to choose from!
All three seasons of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Film Independent Presents is supported by Lead Sponsor the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Official Partner Vision Media and Promotional Partner KCRW.
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