Ben Lester interview: ‘The Undoing’ editor
For BAFTA-winning editor Ben Lester, the best part of editing any project is “trying to do justice to what is on the page and recreate that feeling on the screen,” he says of allowing the audience to feel the way he does when he first reads through a script.
As for his work on HBO’s six-part thriller “The Undoing,” Lester reveals that it was particularly challenging and exciting in the editing room after post-production was shut down due to the pandemic, because key department heads were able to revisit their work months later, with a fresh and potentially more discerning eye. “To have that distance and come back and watch it more objectively was really great,” he admits. “To finish it and be away from it for months,” he says, “was a bit disruptive. But, we rode with it!” Watch the exclusive video interview with Lester above.
“The Undoing” was created by multiple Emmy-winning writer/producer David E. Kelley (“L.A. Law,” “Picket Fences,” “The Practice,” “Ally McBeal,” “Big Little Lies”) and directed by Emmy-winning director Susanne Bier (“The Night Manager”), based on the book “You Should Have Known” by Jean Hanff Korelitz. It follows Grace Sachs (Nicole Kidman), who lives a picture-perfect life in New York City as a successful therapist, married to esteemed doctor Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant), raising their son Henry (Noah Jupe).
Their lives painfully unravel after a mysterious woman is brutally murdered, Jonathan goes missing and it is later revealed that the victim was Jonathan’s mistress. As a series of shocking revelations rock Grace’s world and the family endure a painful trial with their hotshot defense lawyer Haley Fitzgerald (Noma Dumezweni) hired by Grace’s rich and influential father (Donald Sutherland), she is forced to start over with her son while questioning whether she truly ever knew the man she married.
“The Undoing” was HBO’s most-watched series of 2020, concluding last November with its explosive finale. It was the ultimate “who-dunnit,” keeping viewers guessing about each characters’ motivations and ultimately who was responsible for the gruesome murder at the center of the story, with each episode ending on a dynamite cliffhanger. And Lester agrees that it was make or break for him on this show, as the editing had to perfectly capture the deliberate pacing of each episode to effectively build up to each shocking crescendo.
“Most of the cliffhangers were as written, as David is an amazing, amazing writer, so a lot of those endings were preexisting, so it was just a matter of bringing them out to be as punchy and as exciting as you could,” Lester explains. “It’s holding those close-ups, building the suspense. A lot of it is the sound and the music building to a punching finale, but it is also the work that you’ve done before to reach that point.”
“Sometimes when you get sent a script, you read it and you imagine it and if it’s a great script like that, I’m on the edge of my seat reading it. And so when you get in there and you finally read the material, all I want is to create that feeling in everyone else that is watching it, the feeling I had when I first read it,” he says. “It’s about drawing it out and slowing it down so that you’re desperate to see what’s going to happen next, but not too long so that you lose interest, but long enough so that when it comes, it has impact and weight.”