Insecure aired its fifth and final season late last year, bringing the story of its protagonist, Issa Dee, played by Issa Rae, to a close. Throughout its run, the Emmy-winning HBO comedy series has gotten creative with how it interacts with its audience, specifically the way its main character speaks to another version of herself in the mirror.
For its fifth season, Insecure received three Emmy nominations, including a bid for Editor Nena Erb, who won the single-camera picture editing prize two years ago when the series last aired. In Episode 8 of Season 5, “Choices, Okay?!” multiple paths for Issa and her circle are explored, giving Erb the opportunity to highlight a few directions for the characters.
On the heels of her Emmy nomination, Below the Line had the chance to speak with Erb about the uniquely positive experience of working with Rae and the Insecure crew. She also discussed the state of representation in the industry and reflected on some of her other TV work before previewing two upcoming features that she’s working on at the moment.
Below the Line: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination!
Nena Erb: Oh, thank you so much.
BTL: Your nominated episode, “Choices, Okay?!” was a very cool episode, with all those different futures. Was that a fun opportunity for you?
Erb: Yes, definitely. I think that, through all five seasons, our audiences have been waiting for this moment for so long. They’ve been waiting to figure out what she’s doing with her life, so it was really important to get it right, but also to keep it entertaining and clear, because it was like a fantasy within a fantasy. I think a lot of people were concerned that it would be confusing, but fortunately, it didn’t come out that way.
BTL: We’re used to all those mirror scenes, which provide a window into what could be. It could be confusing, but it seems more fun and playful.
Erb: Yes, definitely, especially the ones in this episode for sure. [In] the mirror, Issa is always her brazen self, right? I think, by the end of the episode, the last one, which is a big one-er where they’re talking to each other but you never cut away to anything, that was quite a challenge, actually, to make it look seamless. I had to figure out when to make invisible edits so that you couldn’t tell. It just took a lot, because it’s not possible for one person to act as two people and have the timing match up. And so it took a lot of manipulation of one of the takes, or both of the takes, really, in different places to slow them down or speed them up so they’re actually responding to each other, and so the pacing is correct. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do it, but I am glad I pulled it off.
BTL: I think you definitely did. It comes off as very seamless. It reminded me of watching Orphan Black when I would think, ‘oh, here’s a new actress playing a new character,’ but then it would just be Tatiana Maslany. But the real trick that you pulled off was convincing me that I’m seeing real Issa and mirror Issa, and I think that’s pretty extraordinary.
Erb: Exactly! I love that show, actually. I didn’t think of that show when I was doing it. I remember thinking, ‘how am I supposed to make this work?’
BTL: I think aside from just the mirror scenes, Insecure really does have a specific tone. Is that something that’s hard to match for you given that you’re not editing all of the episodes?
Erb: No, I don’t think so. Once you have a pretty good grasp on the characters and what their journeys are, from episode to episode, season to season, I think all of that informs my choices when I’m choosing performances to put my episodes together. I think, as editors, we always bring a little bit of ourselves into the work that we do. We know the recipe that we’re supposed to stay between, but then we could have our own little special seasoning. So I didn’t find it difficult to maintain the right tone.
BTL: Is there any work you do with the directors or creators of the show about how the episode should look?
Erb: Yeah, absolutely. We always have tone meetings, and we go through the entire script, page by page, scene by scene. The directors will pitch their ideas, and Issa will have her input, and I’ll have my questions. I keep a very open line of communication with all the directors I work with so that they feel like they can get ahold of me if they have a question on set or if at the end of the day they want me to cut something first because they’re concerned about something. It’s a very collaborative, hands-on environment for everybody.
BTL: There are other shows I know that you’ve worked on that I want to ask you about, but first, has Insecure been markedly different from your other projects?
Erb: Oh, yes. I think that the difference is, and this could just be my interpretation, but I feel like the tone that Issa and showrunner Prentice Penny have set for the entire culture of the show and the crew has been one of support. Everybody’s been so nice and wonderful. For the first time, I feel like I’m not under as much pressure to do everything correctly, because I think, and I still feel like that sometimes, but on this show, less, I always feel like, ‘oh my gosh, if I screw this up, I’m messing it up for all the other women that come after me, or all the women of color who come after me, so I can’t make a single mistake.’ And it’s a lot of pressure.
But they’ve created a situation where you can experiment, you can try different things that you thought you want to try to be more creative, and it’s okay if you don’t succeed as long as you try. So I think knowing that, and it was something that we talked about in my interview, actually, I just threw it out there, just curious to see what they would say, and they were like, ‘yeah, as long as you try, good. We just want someone who’s engaged and wants to do something special.’ So, I think that really made it different. I’m not saying that the other shows wouldn’t allow me to do anything interesting. This was set from the very beginning, and so I think I entered into it with a very different feeling than other projects.
BTL: It’s nice to hear about that supportive environment. Diversity and representation, and authenticity in telling stories, have been talked about a lot, mostly with people in front of the camera. I’m curious how that translates to below-the-line workers and people who we don’t necessarily see whose contributions are still very important.
Erb: Oh, yeah. Issa’s no joke. She is all about diversity, equity, inclusion, and you can see it in the choices that she makes, in the hires that she makes. And it’s amazing. Oftentimes, I’m the only person of color on the team and now, I’m one of many, and it’s kind of liberating. It’s different and special and I loved it.
BTL: I was looking back at some of the projects you’ve worked on, and one that really stands out to me is Genera+ion, which is a show that I so wish was continuing. I always think of it as a lighter version of Euphoria, which is obviously taking off. But what interested me most was how I remember getting to Emmy submissions last year around this time, and it was considered a comedy, which really surprised me even though I certainly found it entertaining. As an editor, can you speak to the tone of the show and if you approach your work thinking of it as either drama or comedy, and whether that matters.
Erb: I think for that show, everything was told from the point of view of the teenager. I’ve had many conversations with Daniel Barnz, one of the creators, about this. He’s okay with messy camerawork because this is from their point of view, and as a teenager, I remember, ‘oh my gosh, that was a mess.’ I would miss a lot of things and I would always be just a step behind, or I would be super hyperactive, or whatever it was at the time. And so that was reflected a lot in the storytelling and in the way that it was shot and also the way it was edited as well. Everything was from their point of view, nothing was traditional. You would never start with a wide establishing shot and then go to your next shots. It was nothing like that. The cameras were constantly moving, and it was okay if the shot was a little bit out of focus for a part of it, because, again, this is from the point of view of a teenager. Are they aware of everything they’re seeing? Probably not. So I thought that was so interesting, and I wish that show continued as well, because there was a great crew.
BTL: There’s another show you worked on, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which like Insecure, was a comedy that could also be very serious, and yet it was totally different because it was a musical. Did that require a completely different approach and style from you?
Erb: Yes! That was so interesting. It was a comedy, it was a drama, and it was about mental health. So we had to treat it very seriously, not make fun of it, and make it relatable and still keep it funny. So those are challenges in itself to find that right tone. The musicals are amazing. That was probably my favorite thing I’ve ever done, just because every episode there were so many musical numbers and they’re all so different, it’s not just one genre. In one episode, there could be something from Simon and Garfunkel or a [Bob] Fosse piece, an eighties piece, rock and roll, Céline Dion! It was so many different things that you don’t normally get to try as an editor. For me, that was really exciting to research and learn about and experiment. I realize I’m very big on exploration and experimentation.
BTL: Your other big, or I should say, small, TV project, is Apple’s Little America, which is more low-key than the rest of these shows.
Erb: Yeah. That’s a series that’s kind of flown under the radar, and I hope it gets more notice for season two and going forward, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a series that is about the immigrant experience with no stars. I mean, honestly, I don’t even know how they pitched it. How do you pitch a show, like, hey, I want to do a show that’s got no celebrities, but it’s about immigrants. And every episode is different! But I’m so glad they did, because you don’t often get to tell stories like that, and I think what was special about that one was that we didn’t take a political stance on it, and immigrants were portrayed as everyday normal people. We didn’t lean into stereotypes at all, and so it was really special, and I’m glad it got a second season.
BTL: I know you won your first Emmy for Project Greenlight. Does nonfiction require a completely different approach as an editor, and is that something you welcome? I know you haven’t done that much documentary-style work since then…
Erb: Yeah, I love my background in nonfiction. I think it’s informed a lot of what I do now, and it’s taught me so much in terms of problem-solving skills because there’s no script. You are thrown into just hours and hours, in the hundreds of hours, of footage and you have to wade through all of it and find a story and make it compelling. That was a really great crew on that project too. I try to work with people that are great, and people that I like and get along with, and I feel like I’ve been very lucky in that sense.
BTL: It seems like you have some pretty cool projects coming up. What can you share about them?
Erb: Yes! A comedy feature directed by Adele Lim, who I think a lot of people recognize from Crazy Rich Asians, produced by Lionsgate. We are on hiatus at the moment, we’re going to resume probably in the fall, and in the meantime, I picked up another feature called Downtown Owl. The directors are Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater, [and] they’re phenomenal. I think Ed Harris is in it. A lot of incredible actors, and the story is very quirky, based off of a Chuck Klosterman novel. I love little projects like this. They’re just different and fun and quirky. I’m really drawn to that.
BTL: Do you need to be in a different mindset to take on a feature compared to a TV episode, or is it just a longer project?
Erb: It’s the same but just bigger and longer. I find the thing that I need to be conscious of is how quickly I work, because sometimes I’ll work a little too quickly, and then at the end of the day, I don’t quite remember where I put that version. So I have to slow down a little bit when I’m on a feature because, instead of thirty scenes, you have 120 scenes. So you have to be a little more organized with your versions, and I like to do a lot of versions. I’m developing a way to organize a little bit better.
BTL: Looking at your Emmy category, you’re facing stiff competition from shows like Hacks, Only Murders in the Building, and Ted Lasso. Do you watch any of those shows, and do you pay careful attention to the editing in them?
Erb: Yeah, I love all the shows and, honestly, I’m floored. I don’t even know what I’m doing here. But I’m so honored to be mentioned in the same breath as them because they’re all amazing shows. Hacks. Barry. Ted Lasso’s amazing. I know one of the editors on it. Same thing with Only Murders. I was just emailing with one of the other nominees on that show because we’re both part of ACE, and we’re kind of in this, I guess you’d call it a welcoming committee for new members, so they pair you up with a member who’s been in the organization longer. It’s surreal. It’s really wonderful, and I’m super happy for all of them. I’m just honored to be in that group.
BTL: I’m not sure if you know, but your Emmy from Season 4 represents the only Emmy win so far for Insecure. How does it feel to be representing the entire series with your award?
Erb: I haven’t really thought about it that way, because it’s a little scary. I hope, this being the last season, I hope there are more wins than just mine. I’m so fortunate. But I feel like, for Season 4, more people should have been recognized and won.
All five seasons of Insecure are now streaming on HBO Max.