Both Amazon Prime’s “Homecoming” and Netflix’s “Russian Doll” provocatively play with the 30-minute format, cramming their existential journeys with confusing timelines and visual detail. But, thanks to binge watching, the two shows actually function like long movies, according to editors Rosanne Tan (“Homecoming”) and Laura Weinberg (“Russian Doll”).
In “Homecoming,” the ’70s-style conspiracy thriller from director Sam Esmail (“Mr. Robot”), social worker Heidi (Julia Roberts) tries to help troubled soldiers transition back to civilian life in one timeline (shot in a wide aspect ratio), while attempting to solve the strange mystery of her memory loss as a result of a nefarious plot in a future timeline (shot in a shorter aspect ratio). And, in “Russian Doll,” the black comedy from showrunner/star Natasha Lyonne, her self-absorbed software engineer, Nadia, repeatedly dies on her 36th birthday in a “Groundhog Day”-like loop, only to discover fellow traveler, Alan (Charles Barnett), also stuck in time.
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“The 30-minute format was done as a slow burn,” said Tan. “Sam wanted it that way because it was adapted from a podcast [from Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg]. He shot it as one, long movie, and for us, that’s how we received footage. Finding the rhythm involved a lot of trial and error. And the tone is not a very cutty type of show. That’s Sam’s style and I had to keep that in mind.”
Episode 4 (“Redwood”), for which Tan has been Emmy-submitted, proved the most pivotal. Heidi’s therapy sessions with Walter (Stephan James) in 2018 result in a breakthrough, and they even experience a personal connection, which puts them both in danger at the top-secret occupational program. In 2022, Heidi, living with her mom (Sissy Spacek) and working as a waitress, copes with frustrating memory gaps, and is shocked to discover that she was hospitalized.
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The opening, though, provided Tan with a creative opportunity to introduce how the mind-altering medication makes its journey to Homecoming. In a series of shots, the tropical red berry is harvested, processed, and shipped to the facility, where its delivered inside in a long, continuous take. “Two months after cutting from the boxes and changing location and getting to the end with the title card popping, I received the medication footage and had to figure out how to do this as a story,” Tan said. “I tried out all kinds of things and ended up doing split-screen. It worked out and Sam liked the way it [connected] to the episode.”
Key to Esmail’s method was using music cues from classic thriller/horror movies (which proved a licensing challenge for music supervisor Maggie Phillips). Esmail wanted Lalo Schifrin’s “The Amityville Horror” for the opening, and Tan found it a perfect match, particularly the swirling sound during the crunching of the berries. However, Tan and the other two editors (Justin Krohn and Franklin Peterson) scoured Spotify for the other choices, with Tan selecting, among others, Bernard Herrmann’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” as a result of its strange theremin sound when Heidi discovers the box with her belongings from Homecoming; Pino Donaggio’s “Carrie” (starring Spacek as an inside joke) during a bureaucratic nightmare for a Department of Defense investigator (Shea Whigham); and Gil Mellé’s “The Andromeda Strain” for a moment of dread when the cover-up starts to unravel for Heidi’s former supervisor (Bobby Cannavale).
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“Every scene is a new puzzle,” Tan said. “The therapy session between Heidi and Walter cuts away to his flashback insert shots of the [IED] explosion, which is just another puzzle piece. And when she comes to visit him in his room and learns about a road trip, their relationship grows; she wants to help him and wants to know more. And the change in aspect ratios not only shows the different timelines but gives her a fuller picture when she’s in control or confines her space when she’s not in control.”
Similarly, “Russian Doll” offers Nadia’s life as a puzzle in need of solving to atone for her narcissism and guilt. The birthday party/death loop ultimately serves as a second chance at redemption, an opportunity to bond with Alan, also searching for purpose and fulfillment. And, like “Homecoming,” “Russian Doll” is structured around 30-minute movements but unfolds as a four-hour movie. “It leaves you wanting more in the same way as a film with short breaks,” said editor Weinberg.
“There were so many theoretical aspects to the show, so we were able to think about what we were conveying with the edit,” Weinberg added. “It’s intended to be a subjective perspective, not just what it means but what it means to you, which is really cool with the show. Nadia needs to look inside herself and is also looking for help in the outside world.”
While Episode 1 (“Nothing In This World Is Easy”) establishes the rules, with Nadia dying and rebooting every few minutes, Episode 2 (“The Great Escape”) turns Nadia into a detective, trying to find out what’s happening and why, and Episode 3 (“A Warm Body”) introduces her to Alan. “Then it becomes about reaching out and transitioning to a partnership. Which a lot of us find hard to do,” Weinberg said.
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But Weinberg is particularly proud of a repetitive death loop on a flight of stairs in Episode 2, which transitions into a surprising moment of bliss, thanks to another creative use of music cutting. “She’s dying over and over but it’s funny,” she said. “And then we go into this slow-moving but beautiful kind of journey with ‘I Go To Sleep’ [from Anika], where Nadia goes through the party and does drugs and lives in her own head, in her own world.”
In the finale, Episode 8 (“Ariadne”), for which Weinberg is Emmy-submitted, the time loop splits off into two alternate realities for Nadia and Alan to contend with. “There is so much happening,” she said, “the split screens and the quad screens. How do you get out of it and break free from habit or thoughts that keep you in one place?,” Weinberg said. “So that’s why the show is so relatable. Obviously none of us relates to dying over and over, but we can relate to being stuck or trying to grow, trying to become better. And the reckoning, where people re-think some of the things they said or did.”