The Flight Attendant, an HBO Max Original series from novelist Chris Bohjalian and showrunner/creator Steve Yockey, is a gripping thrill ride that leaves the audience wanting more. The series follows The Big Bang Theory star Kaley Cuoco as flight attendant Cassie Bowden who mysteriously wakes up next to a dead man, Alex Sokolov (Michiel Huisman), a passenger she connected with on a flight to Bangkok. Cassie tries to piece the night together and figure out if she is the killer or is being framed for murder. Editor Heather Persons forms the first episode of the series, titled “In Case of Emergency,” creatively through the use of split-screen editing.
Persons has received her first Primetime Emmy nomination in the category of “Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series.” Persons was previously nominated for an American Cinema Editors’ ACE Eddie Award for her work on The Ron Clark Story.
(Note: There are some minor spoilers for The Flight Attendant in this feature.)
The entire series utilizes the split-screen editing technique with multiple boxes in the frame. Persons described, “In the screenplay, our showrunner, Steve Yockey, had indicated that all the phone conversations should be split screen. We went in and started playing around with the split screens, it was very experimental. At first, we thought all the conversations would be split screen throughout. Then we learned, sometimes it doesn’t really work to the storytelling advantage because if the two people are doing something that’s really working together well, it’s really satisfying. In more serious scenes, where we want to be really grounded in one character’s performance, it’s better to cut back and forth. We experimented and tried a lot of different things. Eventually after months into many episodes, we landed on a formula where we would start phone conversations in the split screen and then would jump out of them.”
The editor continued, “Since we were using all of those are, Steve Yockey wanted to do more of that stuff. We started experimenting in different places. We learned more things, which is that we can convey a lot of information with the split screens. We were doing all this international jet-setting in the first episode — we started in New York, fly to Bangkok, go to Seoul, and we’re back in New York. We can see lots of shots of the beautiful different cities and create a feeling that the world is really big and cram a lot of info in there. When she has her date with Alex, at first, that was a regular montage, it was taking a long time because there were a lot to it. Steve had the idea to condense it into boxes. We did that, and it worked out great because we could go really fast and show all these different things happening. That’s how we landed on that.”
The split-screen editing and other elements is inspired by Alfred Hitchcock. “I think Steve was really inspired by Hitchcock. There are references throughout, like the music is a Bernard Herrmann inspired score; it’s a wonderful jazz piece. Some of the costumes are 50s inspired when Cassie’s running away, and she puts a scarf on her head. The boxes feel stylized, like a throwback, but we contemporized them. My assistant, Jean Crupper, helped a lot with the sizes and shapes. Sometimes, we had too many boxes in and had to pull back, or we wanted this wipe to happen here to correspond with this action or change the music. It was very fluid up until the very end till we locked the episodes, they were always in flux,” Persons shared.
The authentic performances influenced the editing style within each scene. “What was most important was Kaley’s performance, because the show is so crazy,” the editor emphasized. “It starts out, we feel like we’re maybe in a rom-com; it feels very familiar, comforting, and friendly. Then it takes a weird turn when Alex is discovered dead in the bed, and we think we’re in a murder mystery and Cassie is on the run. It gets even weirder toward the end when she starts stepping into those mind palaces where she can speak to Alex, and she’s also having flashbacks to her childhood and flashbacks to the night of the murder, so a lot is happening. She’s the touchstone, and I wanted her to feel as real and as authentic as possible. She gives such an incredible performance and so appealing. She carries through all that craziness because we really believe her and we’re with her that whole time. I wanted everybody to be on board with her 100%, which she totally delivered. It was grounded visually in a certain style and in all the great performances. Everybody else on the show was great too like Rosie Perez, Zosia Mamet, and I really loved Michelle Gomez who plays Miranda.”
The tones within the first episode shift between comedy, drama, mystery, thriller, and suspense. Persons clarified, “There are a lot of different tones. The motto of the show was more is more. We tried to maximize each moment and make each of those beats the best they could be. It was always a little bit of a balancing act. Sometimes a scene that might be a scary scene, but would also be a little bit funny. That’s where producers would come in, and we could shade things. I would cut something that would have a little comedic edge, but maybe they wanted it to be a little scarier. It was something we were always working on and finessing. The actors were very skilled, and they could give us a lot of different things. Michelle Gomez is supposed to be a scary character, but she’s also a very funny actress. We were always shading things and making choices.”
The music really shapes the feel and tone of the series. “The music propelled us to create a sense of cohesion and propulsion,” Persons praised. “I think Steve Yockey always wanted jazz, percussion, and had that in mind. Composer Blake Neely really got it and nailed it. I just love what he did, and it’s really fun. What was so important was to be able to hit all those different tones. I appreciate his music in so many spots, especially in that scene when they’re in the waiting room before the FBI interviews them, there’s this wonderful cue underneath that sequence that’s so subtly comedic. In keeping with the whole piece, it’s just really fun, hard to do that, and make it cool. He was able to straddle the line between action and funny, but always keeping it cool. It’s a very hard balance with music because those things can slip into something we’ve heard before, but he never did that.”
Pacing and tension always need to have a certain balance. The editor explained, “Pacing is always a subjective thing. I always cut things for authenticity and want to feel conversations between people are happening in real time and like we’re in that world in that conversation with them. It might feel like there are things pushing forward very quickly. One place I did use jump cuts is when she wakes up in the hotel and Alex is dead. I use them there to make things move faster and also to convey a sense of her skidding out, that time is a little bit fractured right there for her subjectively. For a show like this, where it’s an action-mystery show, we want to keep things moving along. We pushed, and the music helped us because it’s percussive and it gives a lot of energy.”
The flashbacks of Alex’s death and the conversations between him and Cassie within the mind palace are integrated seamlessly with one another. Persons explained, “Originally, those flashbacks to the night were not scripted. As we got farther down the road, Steve wanted to juice up some moments. We went looking through outtakes and pulled stuff that we thought might be useful. My assistant Jean Crupper did a lot of those flashbacks. We worked together on that stuff, and we ended up putting in maybe three or four of those flashbacks to that night. The stuff in the mind palace was always scripted and that was always there. I’m sure the stuff to her childhood were scripted also. We ended up adding things that weren’t originally there. The bus scene read very funny on paper because Cassie was sitting on this bus with all these Thai flight attendants and having a freak-out as they were supposed to be talking amongst themselves and not really realizing what was happening to her, like she was a real fish out of water. It read so great on the page, but then as we were working on the episode, the producers wanted it to feel more urgent and pump up the volume on her freak-out. That’s how we ended up experimenting with that spot. The other one was when she’s sitting in the waiting room before she gets interviewed, we added some flashback stuff. The hope was that it would connect us to Alex a little bit and maybe drop a few clues about that night. We were feeling out that world a little bit.”
Season 1 of The Flight Attendant is currently streaming on HBO Max, and the series has been renewed for a second season.
All photos courtesy HBO.