Pen15 Editor Taichi Erskine on Editing
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Taichi Erskine Edited His Sister’s Adolescence Into Cringe Comedy Gold

Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle credit the editor with helping ground the resonant coming-of-age story within the silliness of thirtysomethings playing 13-year-olds.

Pen15 editor Taichi Erskine

courtesy of Taichi Erskine

Cringe comedy is at the center of “Pen15,” the Hulu series that explores middle school through the eyes of 13-year-old girls Maya and Anna. But the experience of putting the show together had a different sort of cringe factor for editor Taichi Erksine.

The brother of one of the show’s creators was critical to assembling its delicate balance of melancholic humor. “Pen15” is a fictionalized take on Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle’s pre-teen years, but they also star in the show as best friends going through a series of awkward moments, including queasy attempts at romance. Taichi often had to reconcile his discomfort around such scenes with his professional obligations.

“I mean, it was super weird,” he said. “There’s no way around it. I think I was always prepared for the possibility of Maya making it as an actress, but I never imagined that it would be through this show that is semi-autobiographical.” He sometimes felt like he was watching a documentary of his sister’s life, even if the actor onscreen was in her 30s. “Maya is really good at playing herself and she was going through a lot back then,” Taichi said. “Just seeing that all come to life in the editing room was a very surreal process — but I got more and more used to it.”

pen15 creator maya erskine and pen15 editor taichi erskine

Maya and Taichi Erskine, in their younger days

courtesy of Taichi Erskine

The Erksines are lifelong collaborators who grew up in Los Angeles with big filmmaking ambitions. After Taichi saw his sister in a high school production of “A Chorus Line,” he decided to make her the star of his short film “Hurricane,” a DIY disaster movie made over the course of a few summers. The experience helped solidify both of their interests in future creative pursuits. “He’s always been someone I’ve creatively looked up to,” Maya said.

After Maya went to college in New York and befriended Konkle at a theater program in Amsterdam, they started developing comedic material together. By the time they moved to LA and decided to launch a web series out of their improv comedy routine, Taichi had directed a few shorts and settled into his career as an editor. In the process, he was looped into their emerging dynamic. Konkle was relieved to have an editor who already gelled with her partner in crime. “They were this creative duo for a really long time before Maya and I were,” she said. “Plus, I grew up as a middle child, so I’m having fun being in the middle again.”

Taichi ultimately became the stabilizing force for the duo when it came time to juggle the precise tone of “Pen15.” Despite Maya and Konkle’s airtight scripts, they would often riff on their own material in two-shots, playing around with comedic tangents that threatened to offset the more dramatic aspects of each episode. “Even though at its core it is a comedy, there’s certainly a lot of drama in there and things that aren’t necessarily supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny,” Taichi said. “I was just trying to find that balance as much as possible.”

maya erskine and anna konkle in pen15

“Pen15”

courtesy of Hulu

That was a critical part of the process early on as the pair established the unique mood of the show. “When we initially started conceiving the show it was a lot broader,” Maya said. “The fact that we’re in our thirties playing 13-year-olds means it’s very easy to go into sketch.” An initial 10-minute proof-of-concept for the show did have more of a sketch comedy feel, “but they wanted to veer away from that as much as possible,” Taichi said. “A big word that kept getting thrown around once we were editing was ‘grounded.'” He had no shortage of material to work through because his actors were also writers and showrunners thinking through the editing challenge ahead. “They were always kind of conscious to make sure there was a variety of options in their performances,” Taichi said.

With time, the show’s two-season arc found its groove. Taichi ultimately edited 10 episodes of “Pen15” that epitomize its distinctive feel, including several of its most personal. The show’s creators credit him with helping to catapult “Pen15” beyond the daffier tone of the original pitch to deliver a deeper coming-of-age story steeped in details from a real world that both Erksines knew well. “We always talked about tone,” Maya said. “We were all on the same page of making the show feel like a memory — that whoever was watching it could feel transported back to that time.”

The most impressive example of that outcome is “Yuki,” which departs from the traditional framework of the show by portraying a day in the life of Maya’s mother, played by the siblings’ mother, Mutsuko Erksine. The episode finds the character briefly rekindling a relationship with an old acquaintance while her musician husband is on tour. “Part of me almost didn’t want to edit that episode just because it was so uncomfortable,” Taichi said. “But I realized once I was cutting, ‘Nah, it really has to be me.'” That was partly because much of the episode is in Japanese, which he speaks, unlike the other editors on the show. But there was more to it than that. “I felt really passionate about Tai editing that one,” Maya said.

Maya also directed the episode, marking her first time behind the camera, and said she drew on references as disparate as Bong Joon Ho’s “Mother” and Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love.” But in the editing room, Taichi was less concerned about filmic precedents than the way their mother came across. “He was so concerned about making our mom look good,” Maya said. “It’s hard when you’re connected to this person.”

In the video below, watch how Maya and Taichi Erksine brought a personal story about their mother to life in “Yuki.”

A different sort of challenge came up on “Bat Mitzvah,” an episode that required juggling a busy ensemble cast on a dance floor in addition to dueling plot lines for Maya and Anna that culminate in an uncomfortable romantic encounter. “Anna’s kind of having this existential crisis,” Taichi said. “At the same time, Maya is trying to be accepted by the other girls. So it was just about trying to find this balance between them, and just making sure to keep checking in with both of them as the episode unfolds so it didn’t feel too heavily in one of their character’s corners.”

Konkle said that Taichi’s willingness to experiment with the way her character wrestled with her anxiety helped her understand the essence of the episode. “He was incredibly creative, patient, and meticulous,” she said, noting that at one point he even tacked on an internal monologue to the character to envision what she was thinking in the moment. “It was a whole saga figuring that piece out.”

Pen15-Bat-Mitzvah

The “Bat Mitzvah” Episode of “Pen15”

screenshot

Another challenge came up in the Season 2 episode “Sleepover,” when Maya grows jealous of Anna over her new friend and the silliness gives way to a more somber feel. “My first pass on that episode is so different from how it turned out because I think I was leaning too heavily into the comedic aspects,” Taichi said. Eventually, he was able to find a way to transition out of that vibe by leaning on different takes of the pair’s performances. “It still starts off pretty funny, but then it gets gradually more serious and sad as it continues,” Taichi said, “which kind of feels like the MO of this show in some ways.”

With the show coming to an end after two seasons, Taichi said he was still sorting through his feelings about the experience. “I  would love to work with either of them again. And I’d love for it to be a show isn’t just so personal,” he said, but then doubled back. “If they do decide to revisit these characters, I would certainly be game.” —Eric Kohn

Taichi Erskine

Credits: "Pen15," "Angelyne," "Miracle Workers," "Special"

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