“Each season is a different animal,” reveals supervising editor Adam Penn when we chatted via webcam (watch below) about his work on the “American Horror Story” franchise. “It’s interesting to kind of step back and see how the show has evolved over the seasons. Specifically with the editing, season one was really kind of jumpy, which was really cool: it added a sort of tense energy and nervousness to it, which I liked. And I feel gradually, over the four seasons, we just slowly sort of pumped the breaks a little bit and slowed down a little. I like how the horror experience has changed over time. The sort of general pace has slowed down, which I think is really effective with horror.”
Penn speaks candidly about the evolution of this editorial style. “‘American Horror Story’ has always been a really kind of fast-paced show, but I’m a big believer in slow horror. I feel like this past season, we slowed it down a bit so that there was more of this sort brooding, creepy feel, and then when something happens, you speed it up so that the scares just hit you.”
Part of the reason for the slower pace of “Freak Show,” the latest installment in the “AHS” anthology, came from the cinematic references given to Penn by the shows creator, Ryan Murphy. “The most obvious one was Todd Browning’s “Freaks” (1932),” he says, referring to the infamous horror classic featuring real-life circus oddities, “which is not in any way a sort of fast-paced, jump-cutty thing.” Surprisingly, says Penn, “Ryan also referenced a little ‘South Pacific’ (1958). So the pacing is naturally slower. And then the actors bring their own pace, which dictates a lot of what we do in the cutting room, and then obviously Ryan dictates the pace as well.”
Penn worked with Murphy first on “Nip/Tuck” and, most recently, “The Normal Heart,” which earned him his first Emmy bid (he lost to Yan Miles who cut “Sherlock: His Last Vow” ). “What he does that’s so great is he gives me — before a frame has been shot — an abundance of references, and I love that. It’s a shorthand for me, it helps me with all aspects: the pacing, the music, the sound design. And it allows me to sort of dive in and just immerse myself in his headspace for whatever project we’re working on. Thus far it’s worked really well because we’ve worked on vastly different things together, and that’s always been, for me, the best part of the process.”
Watch our full interview below to lear more of his thoughts on his work — including the tricks he used to help turn Sarah Paulson into both Dot and Bette, the two-headed woman — and his struggle to create that creepy, brooding pace.