Shaheed Qaasim structured Poker Face as one clean and cool deck of cards. Everything in the Peacock series was in the right place, from the scene of the weekly crime to the unraveling of it all. The editor, who previously worked on Future Man and Modern Family, kept the series running as smooth as its protagonist, Charlie Kelly (Natasha Lyonne), a human lie detector on the run from the mob.
For the acclaimed hit series, which Lyonne and Rian Johnson co-created, Qaasim brought his unique set of skills to the table. Nearly 20 years ago, he got his start on David Milch‘s Deadwood. Throughout much of his career, he’s also been a competitive dancer. He’s good at it. Not only is Qaasim good at it, but his career in dance only made him a better editor, as he recently told us in an interview about one of the most exciting shows to come out in recent years.
[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length]
Below-the-Line: To start, you’re a very good swing dancer.
Shaheed Qaasim: Thank you for saying that. It’s something I did semi-professionally for a while. It’s quite fun, but it’s hard to manage dancing and working in the entertainment business at the same time.
BTL: Does dance help you as an editor? How’d it define your sense of pace and rhythm?
Qaasim: I’m glad you asked that because it informs my work. When you’re putting together a routine and a performance, you have to understand how to shape a performance to get the greatest amount of impact. There is rhythm and timing and knowing the nature of the music that you’re dancing to, and that rhythm and pace have always been instrumental for me as an editor. Especially on a show like Poker Face when we do utilize music in somewhat of a rhythmic fashion.
BTL: You must be great cutting with music.
Qaasim: One of the things that is a strength of mine is I can cut music fast. When you’re trying to shape the music to a scene, sometimes you have to do a precise edit to not have the music feel like it bumps but then hit certain parts of the scene. I do that quickly. Because as a dancer, you know the phrasings of the song. You can hear it very easily, so you can kind of cut all that stuff very quickly. A lot of times when I’m with producers and directors, they’re quite impressed at how quickly I can cut a song to a picture.
BTL: How about handling the musical dialogue in Poker Face?
Qaasim: It’s the same. It’s really what I think high-level editing is, you know, ’cause one of the things that I will do as an editor is I will compress and speed up a moment so I can land something later. You know, there is a melody and a rhythm to the dialogue. Sometimes, when you have an impactful emotional beat that you know is happening later in the scene, sometimes I’ll give it a little extra pace, and then that emotional beat feels even more intense. You know, editing is so tricky to talk about.
BTL: Because it’s so instinctual?
Qaasim: It is this invisible art form. Even though, with all the changing tech, editing has evolved to be one of the most important creative art forms in filmmaking today. It continuously evolves that way with everything that we can do in terms of changing performances and fixing cameras and shots.
There are so many subtle things that we do to create mood and vibe and flow to the audience that you just don’t know. If you’re doing it correctly, you’re not intellectually looking at it. You’re feeling it. A lot of times when I talk about certain things that get done in cuts when people go back and watch it later, they’re like, “What?” That’s cool, but they didn’t think it was cool because they were just in it.
BTL: The tone of the show shifts, which is part of its charm. The retirement home episode, that’s a ‘70s thriller. Episode eight, “The Orpheus Syndrome,” is a monster movie. Did episodes call for extremely varied approaches?
Qaasim: Absolutely. Rian Johnson treated each episode as if it were its independent movie, so it gave us an opportunity as editors to put in our creative vibe for each movie. In that monster movie with Nick Nolte and Cherry Jones, there are also some Hitchcock throwbacks in there. We got an orchestra to score that episode, and it’s the only episode of the season where an orchestra scored.
[Composers] Nathan Johnson and Judson Crane did a fantastic job. You know, I wanted to give Judson some props there ‘cause I think he had the bigger contribution on that particular episode. The music is so beautiful and has such an old-school throwback to it. And then the editing style in certain sections was inspired by some of the old horror movies.
BTL: What did you find Nick Nolte and Cherry Jones’ performances gave you to work with in that episode?
Qaasim: Oh, they’re so good. Nick Nolte is a movie star, and now that he’s in his more senior years, he still just has that charisma and movie star vibe. As an editor, I try to focus on story and character and you really wanna find little moments ’cause each actor has little moments that they put into their character. You wanna try to be very open and mindful of those choices.
Sometimes, as the editor, we can get overly focused on pace or too focused on the story or too focused on logic. You can miss these really special character beats. Jones is a great example. I wouldn’t be surprised if she got nominated [for an Emmy]. She gave you so much range, which allowed me to try to shape the scene with her performance and figure out the dynamics of, like, “When do you want to have her more mellow and when do you accelerate it?”
One of the cool things that I’ve always loved about editing is you get these great stories from writers and then you’re in control of rhythm, timing, performance, and pace. How do you land these moments, and then how do you enhance the overall experience?
BTL: Since it’s a weekly mystery for Charlie, how delicate did you have to be with the red herrings?
Qaasim: Especially on a show like this, you are constantly weighing back and forth between having the audience ahead or behind. Are you withholding information or are you giving information? For example, “Orpheus “Syndrome,” we already know the killer. So, one of the important jobs that we need to do is feed the audience all of this delicious information on all the details of how this murder was done. Then as Charlie’s radar comes on, we as an audience, we’re ahead of it, we already know the information, and now we can enjoy being with her as it all gets revealed to her. But then there are times where you’re withholding information from the audience. We didn’t reveal in that same episode that Cherry Jones killed the woman that died on the set, you know?
BTL: How was it having not only the co-creator of the show but also the star, Natasha Lyonne, in the editing room?
Qaasim: She’s such a serious actor, and being in the room with her, I was able to hear more about her process. I was impressed by how precise she is about just body motion. There were times when certain tiny little movements were important to payoff later, and she’d be like, “Oh, wait. I remember doing this cool walk there. Where’s the cool walk?” It gave me even more respect for her as a creator and a creative force to see how precise she was about almost every movement that she does in the show.
BTL: She makes it look effortless, which means the work is probably the opposite of effortless, right?
Qaasim: And that’s what’s so crazy ‘cause, you know, Charlie’s so cool and there’s so much vibe. We just love hanging out with her. You don’t realize how much craft and art and precision and thought goes into something that feels so casual and fun and free.
BTL: We started off talking about music. Maybe one of the most musical pieces of writing on television in recent years was Deadwood. What did you take away from working on that series with [creator] David Milch’s words?
Qaasim: One of the great things about David Milch is he’s like a professor, so he’s someone who loves to teach in the room. Since that was early in my life, that was one of the first editing rooms I had ever entered. At the time, I knew I wanted to be an editor and knew I wanted to be a storyteller. I saw through David Milch, who’s an absolute genius, the real value for an editor is not how great you are on the keys; it’s how great you understand the story.
From that moment on, I spent the rest of my career focusing on what makes strong stories work, what makes good characters work, and how you become good storytellers. And that’s what David did for me. Every day he was there, he was teaching.
My experience with David is special and, you know, maybe people have different experiences, but I thought it was uncanny how he would put himself in this creative space. When he would watch the cuts, he would give all of these notes as if he was not the writer of the episode. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone have such a strong delineation between the two.
When he would get into his writer’s brain, he would be doing the characters’ dialogue aloud and someone would be writing it down. Then David would be done and say, “Read that back to me.” All of a sudden he’s a professor and he’d say, “Oh, no, we should do that. No, that doesn’t work.” Again, he would talk about it as if he wasn’t the writer.
To be able to have that type of separation is so special. One of the hardest things to do, in my opinion, is you need to be inside the characters to be able to write them, but then you also need to be outside sometimes, to be able to objectively give notes to what you’re looking at.
BTL: Thank you for sharing those memories. He’s great. His memoir which came out not that long ago is also great.
Qaasim: I can’t even imagine. I mean, every day at lunch he would tell a story, and he is a storyteller at heart. It’s interesting because I think that also makes certain creators good because of these experiences.
BTL: He’s lived a full life.
Qaasim: Yeah. At the end of the day, I think people are checking into television and film because they wanna see those human experiences. I think that what’s so powerful about Poker Face and Natasha and Charlie is we still are getting the human experience through these tiny little murder mystery movies that we do week to week.
Poker Face season one is now available to stream on Peacock.