Joe Leonard Q&A: ‘Empire’ editor
For a show as densely plotted as Fox's "Empire," a mere 42 minutes can be a slim run-time. "It starts off and it's a lot longer," says Joe Leonard, an editor for the hit series, in our exclusive podcast chat. How much longer he won't admit, yet one thing's for certain: whittling it down takes a lot more than a good pair of scissors. "It really becomes this incredible challenge of trying to find the most dynamic ways through it, and a lot of times it's trimming down scenes, and other times the music sort of leads you through it in a certain way. But it has a rhythm that you kind of have to discover each episode – that's a pretty aggressive rhythm – which is fun to cut."
Empire" tells the sweeping saga of a domineering music producer (Terrence Howard) who spars with his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) over which of their three sons will take over his business once he's gone. Leonard edited five of the seasons 12 episodes, including the pilot, which proved challenging to construct because, as he puts it, "it has a unique tone in that there's sort of a hip-hop beat to … Cookie's storyline – she's coming out of prison and sort of reintroducing herself into the world – and there's a very sensationalized, heightened aspect to the storylines that are kind of soapy." He credits composer Fil Eisler (click here for our interview with Eisler) with finding the right musical note to help balance the show's intricate tonal shifts.
"The other thing in the pilot that I loved," he continues, "was just the way that flashbacks were used to tell the story … the way that the real, kind of deep story of it is introduced in flashback was a lot of fun to me, and finding the tone of how to get into those flashbacks and how to get back was a real challenge.
"There's no doubt … we were really, really searching for what is that balance? How do we go from this one direction we're going in to another direction, and create something that feels coherent and not schizophrenic." Leonard was helped by co-creator and executive producer Lee Daniels, whom he praises as being "an amazing person in the room, with really creative, wonderful ideas. He was a complete joy to work with. I think in my editor's cut I got it 50% of the way, and a lot of it came through working with Lee in discovering the sound and getting the temp music replaced by the score."
With its serialized drama format, "Empire" could be seen as more of a 12-hour feature than a television series. So while an individual episode may have its own specific rhythm, each new chapter continues the narrative of the last. Leonard says of the later episodes he edited, "I was consciously trying to evoke some of the stuff from the pilot in the feelings and scenes … some of the music … to really tie it back into where we started. At the end of the season, the last two episodes I cut, I was thinking the entire time about the first five episodes and how best to kind of interweave them so it just felt like it was a piece of that."
Leonard received an American Cinema Editors Award nomination in 2011 for his work on "Glee," and could be looking at his first Emmy nomination this year.