The title of the HBO Max series The Sex Lives of College Girls pretty much lays out the story of this new episodic comedy from creators Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble. Digging deeper, the series follows four 18-year-old freshman suitemates attending Essex College in Vermont, as they navigate friendships, relationships, and sexual escapades, kicking their young adult active hormones into high gear.
Each episode is the collective collaboration of Editors Kyla Plewes (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Good On Paper) and Kaling alum Mat Greenleaf (The Mindy Project, Never Have I Ever, Champions, Four Weddings and A Funeral, along with Casual, and Saved By The Bell reboot), both whom are Los Angeles-based and have cut their editing prowess with a sharp penchant for comedy. You might say they excel in finding and featuring the funny.
ACE Award nominee Plewes, recognized for her work on the Season 3 premiere of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, found her editing niche with female-centric comedies, so the opportunity to lean into a Mindy Kaling project was a great fit. Greenleaf earned his editing chops in television under the guise of Director Jeff Schaffer (The League). Having worked with Kaling since 2012, Greenleaf has developed a shorthand to the jokes. The Sex Lives of College Girls is a healthy wink at connecting the humor with all the sex going on, so one of the challenges for Plewes and Greenleaf was to lock in the moments that best illustrate Kaling’s vision of those two coming together.
Incidentally, the show was edited at Hula Post, a woman-owned post-production company that provided Avid workstations, storage, workflow design, creative editorial space, and remote editing systems to create a hybrid editing solution for the series. Hula Post’s engineers initially set the team up remotely in their homes using Hula Post Everywhere due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Once it was safe to work in an office environment, they moved into a suite in Hula Post’s 4000 Alameda Ave facility in Burbank, one of three Los Angeles locations, where Hula Post provided two Avid Media Composers and 40TB NEXIS storage.
Below The Line spoke with editors Plewes and Greenleaf who discuss their collaboration even though they weren’t always in the same editing room together. They talk about how their personal experiences of college life may have come into the editing mix and share their stories of working with Mindy Kaling, and zoning in on the funny moments within the scene, including one particular episode, “Naked Party,” which posed an interesting challenge for both of them.
Below The Line: How do you collaborate with each other?
Mat Greenleaf: In the beginning, it was just me for the pilot. Once Kyla was there, we had a semi work-home established where we had one office and we’d come into work with EPs, but we actually didn’t see each other in person. We had our ideas and they definitely had their target ideas. We would go back and forth as to who got the office on what day. During the early months of the show, we would have phone calls to catch up on the different notes we were getting. As things went on, we both got an office right next to each other.
BTL: What were your ideas compared to what the executive producers wanted?
Greenleaf: As the show progresses, you find a rhythm with the characters: what character is speaking to whom. You are just constantly negotiating where all the strengths are. We all narrowed in on the same tone. Mindy and Justin come from a similar world of comedy where they have a lot of jokes to tell and a rhythm to those jokes. We found that accelerated joke cycle, that comic His Girl Friday patter to everything. We got as many of those humorous beats on screen as possible. A lot of the journey is taking those risks and accelerating those beats as much as possible. We trusted the actors to deliver lots of dialogue and jokes and edit it in a way that feels natural.
BTL: Having worked with Mindy Kaling now since 2012, how would you describe knowing what she wants?
Greenleaf: With Mindy, it’s a lot easier with her, because she has a very sharp focus on what she wants. It comes to you pre-packaged on the page. You really get to script with the mechanics of the script. It was zoning in on Mindy’s sensibilities, things that she enjoys, like the pop culture references. It’s the rhythm of hitting your joke, getting your reaction, and getting out of it, which happens faster than you’d expect. Every time I cut, it’s always too slow! You have to really trust the material and keep things moving. As soon as you are processing one joke, you’ve got the next one up. I think keying into that was my biggest breakthrough with Mindy early on in season one, and just to really trusting to that speed. We’re running a little bit longer, up to like 25 to 28-minute comedies. I’ve been with her so long, so now we have a good shorthand. I can anticipate what she thinks will work in terms of performance and playing to a certain tone, and striking the middle ground of the comedy.
BTL: What was it like working with Mindy for the first time?
Plewes: I interviewed with Justin Noble and I actually hadn’t met Mindy until I started. Obviously, it was intimidating [to meet Mindy], but she has people, like Mat who she’s worked with for 10 years, who were invaluable to kind of let me know what to expect and what the world is going to be like. The first phase we cut from home with mostly stream of conscious emails and notes from Mindy, so I got a peek into how her mind works before I met her in person. When we met I found she was great and super fun to work with; there’s no confusion with what she’s gravitating towards so you take that and run with it.
BTL: Where do you find the tone and the pacing in the editing?
Plewes: A lot of the tone and the pacing is centered around character. There are four girls and they needed to have a balanced dynamic between the girls’ squad and their own individuality. They do come together and those are the scenes that we love the best which is the four girls hanging out in the common room and going to parties together. There was a lot of balance because they do separate a lot into their own individual storylines. There are a lot of montages of the girls getting ready, having fun, the party stuff. I’ve got a lot of footage of them drinking and having fun. How do we show how joyful and exciting and youthful these girls are with the editing and the pacing. Usually, my first cut is probably 60% too long (laughs). But then we whittle it down and that’s what ends up on screen.
Greenleaf: It’s really nice to get into the headspace of our characters. We have a lot more room to develop characters and their internal topography and their struggles. For the main cast, the challenge was discovering their voice and how far you take it in any direction. Leighton (Renee Rapp) is a good example. She could be really nice or really mean, and she’s somewhere in the middle. She’s got friends and they love her, but she’s the harshest critic in every episode. A lot of people are involved before it gets to us, writers, actors, directors. You’re realizing it. There’s an immediate proximity in the editing room once it goes up on the monitor. There’s no room for imagination. You just see what it is and is that working for everyone and how it’s landing.
BTL: How does music help out in the editing process?
Greenleaf: I have to shout out to Brienne Rose, our music supervisor. I’ll be working and it’s not there, and then I’ll get her music selections, and it is so of the moment and so cool. She’s also worked with Mindy on other shows, and Mindy loves her. Her music makes the show work on a whole different level and makes me look good. Her musical montage just pops everything off the screen.
Plewes: The vibe with the music was also a big journey for us. The music really fleshes out the attitude girl talk vibe and it really takes off.
BTL: Where did you cut your teeth so to speak in situational comedy?
Greenleaf: I was on The League, assisting and cutting as much as possible with Jeff Schaffer. That world, while adjacent to this, is just a little bit more hyper. It was just navigating Improv comedy without a script, with talented actors with funny voices, but picking and choosing your right moments and condensing as much of it as possible into your 21 and a half-minute format.
Plewes: I had an interesting trajectory career-wise. I feel like I started with the female-led comedy for TV, starting with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, so that’s kind of how I got into this universe. It’s kind of my world, very sex-positive out-there female comedy is what my little niche is right now.
BTL: Could you elaborate more on zoning in on the funny?
Greenleaf: There are so many jokes in this. You’ll get four different reads, many Improv on set maybe lines that are written in post. There are so many jokes that I love and it’s really hard to pick the right one whether it’s the editor’s cut or in picture where you’re trying to smooth out some stuff in ADR. Mindy will come up with jokes on the fly in a tone meeting or on the cuff. She’s just a joke machine. There is so much stuff we can’t put in because we have to run like 50 minutes long.
Plewes Once you get into her mind space, things go really quickly because she is so decisive. I do feel confident that the funniest stuff is in the show, even though we cut so much. We needed to make way for those funny things.
BTL: I’m very curious about the episode, “Naked Party.” How challenging was that for both of you?
Plewes: Early on, we were definitely playing with the title “Sex Lives of College Girls” and the line was how much (nudity) do we want to show. It’s not about the sex, it’s about the personal journey and being women in their early 20s and navigating their sex lives. With the “Naked Party,” they were great about framing out our main actors. We had footage where we saw more nudity and footage where it was more cropped out. There’s definitely a cut that leans into the nudity more. That was a journey to figure out how much nudity we wanted to show and not let it distract from the story, the emotional core of what we were trying to do, and not just be for shock value. There was a lot of nudity that we decided to move away from and a lot of versions of the episode!
Greenleaf: As far as nudity, I’ve never had anything as challenging. This set the bar of sex scenes. The directive which we landed on is that we should keep things cool and sexy, definitely show the nudity but nothing over the top. That said, I had the most revealing stuff I’d ever come across in my career. [laughs] We figured out our levels in the cutting room. It’s interesting to see how the larger world responds to Sex Lives of College Girls is like a vehicle for nudity and the female gaze. I think we did a very good job of navigating that line. I’m very proud of getting those details out there because they are very sex-positive. There’s very little male nudity out there and we didn’t necessarily showcase too much male nudity, but every time a guy takes his shirt off in the show he’s got abs and he is chiseled and every guy is a statue.
BTL: How has your personal college experience come into play?
Greenleaf: I had a very boring college experience. I was monogamous from week five (laughs). I dated the one time and just kept going. For these girls, one they’re girls so that’s a separate experience that I can’t speak to, but I did find it was a very nostalgic ride going to work. Oh, I get to go to college for like nine months. We got to shoot on location for several weeks at Vassar College.
Plewes: With sex lives of college girls, they’re not supposed to be fully formed yet. There is that cringe comedy of it all. You can’t have them being a know-it-all which is the beauty of doing a college show vs. a high school show where they are fresh and new and discovering everything for the first time. With college, it’s like “I think I know who I am,” but we all know that when we were in college we thought we did and made tons of mistakes. You want to love them but also be infuriated by some of their choices or hide your eyes at times like “don’t do that.” There’s such a balance with four of them. I felt like there’s a part of me in each one, like Bela (Amrit Kaur) being so confident but falling on her face a lot. Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet) is naive, especially in the beginning. No one wants to admit that, but coming from a sheltered life where you shot into a huge mass of people and figuring it out. In college, I wanted people to think I was cool and knew everything. I went to college in Canada and a West Coast girl, so I had never seen these college campuses that look like Hogwarts to me. That was not my experience at all. I felt like I was getting the dorm experience vicariously through them.
The Sex Lives of College Girls can be watched streaming on HBO Max. All pictures courtesy HBO, except where noted.