Anthony Boys is Editor of such comedy gold as ‘Veep’, ‘The Thick of It’, and ‘Fresh Meat’ as well as Feature Films ‘In the Loop’ and ‘Svengali’. Here he give us some truly great insights into editing comedy and comedy theory, and also has some great hints, tips and advice.
Dublin Editor: So how did you first get into editing?
Anthony Boys: I started as a runner like a lot of people did. I got teas and coffees and lunches for about a year and a half. During that point I went from just getting teas and coffees and lunches to doing digitizing work and all sort of edit assisting work you would normally do as an assistant, without the getting paid for it of course.
Dublin Editors: What was your first professional editing job?
Anthony Boys: It was for a company who did production events, so big sort of corporate events and halls they did the production on that. But I also had a side line in editing motor racing highlights to keep the bills being paid. I did motor racing highlights as my first proper gig. Which was very good fun and that was mixed in with some corporate videos as well. So one week I’d be doing Formula 3 highlights and the next week I’d be doing a 45 minute video for Dixon’s about their Christmas decorations.
Dublin Editors: Did you have a big break? Did you have a moment where you suddenly crossed the hall to the broadcast?
Anthony Boys: Yes, it was when I got my first agent. I’d done a few bits here and there and we had a guy come into the company I was working at who was a freelancer and he put me in touch with his agent who is still my agent to this day. He got me on a couple of big gigs and that was the first thing I did. The first proper broadcast job I did was a thing called “Brian’s Boyfriends” which was a show, a reality show where an ex-winner of Big Brother went round to couples and lectured them on what was wrong with the boyfriend, how it would fix his life. It was like ITV 11 o’clock at night sort of jazz and that was my first big one. After that I was off and running.
Dublin Editors: So you were cutting comedy from the very beginning?
Anthony Boys: I was not, no. I did a good five years of doing entertainment TV first. I’ve done reality, I did a show called “The Salon” years ago which was Big Brother in a hair dressers. I did a few episodes of “Cash in the Attic”; I’ve got a few of those under my belt. All that sort of jazz I did. I had a sideline in … Well this is how I got into comedy actually, randomly was I sort of specialized in top 100 shows and talking head shows for a while, so, all those, you know , the top 100 cartoons, that Channel 4 did 10 years ago; I did a whole bunch of those. My first break into comedy came with Armando Iannucci who was making a show called “Time Trumpet” which is a spoof of those shows. He wanted someone with experience in those shows to do background editing for it. Initially I was supposed to do 2 weeks on it and I ended up staying for 3 months on the show and cutting two episodes of “Time Trumpet” in its entirety. So that was my first, that was how I got into comedy and I never looked back after that.
Dublin Editors: I know it’s a very busy job and you work a lot of long hours. How do you maintain a work-life balance? Do you get to set the hours you work, is that up to you?
Anthony Boys: I do try to but you are at the whim of the production and the director. If you have deadlines and there are things that people need to see then you’re just going to have to work the hours to make them happen. I still haven’t quite figured out the work-life balance thing I’ll be honest. The one thing that I do is I make sure that I make the most of my time off in between jobs. Rather than sitting around and worrying about money or anything like that, I’m always like let’s just go on a holiday and let’s go and do something fun. Let’s just have a week where I go and have adventures. That keeps me sane and healthy, definitely.
Dublin Editors: You obviously love what you’re doing; what do you love most about your job? And what do you love least about your job?
Anthony Boys: I love making people laugh. I love when you show a clip to someone and they do that kind of giggling behind the hand thing, that kind of laugh of, ‘you’re not supposed to say that on television’, I love it, I’m addicted to seeing people do that. That’s what I love most. The thing I like least is you have to keep yourself physically fit, you have to do some sort of exercise because you are hunched over. You are sat at a desk, sometimes for 16 hours a day, 6, 7 days a week. You have to do something because otherwise you will cramp up and you will get horrible back pain. Every editor I know goes through the same sort of thing. Just the physical ailments you get from sitting still for that amount of time, it’s pretty miserable.
Dublin Editors: Where do you look for inspiration and how do you stimulate your creativity when you feel blocked?
Anthony Boys: You’ll always get blocked. It doesn’t matter what show you’re working on, you’ll always have a point where you just feel stuck and you have to just walk away. You have to just stop and say ‘if I can’t figure this right now, I’ll put it down and I’ll come back to it tomorrow’. Quite often I’ll go home and watch a movie or watch a TV show. It doesn’t even have to be comedy because I’m not looking for the solution in those shows; I’m just trying to reset my brain. I want to put my brain into a different universe than the one it currently inhabits. When I come back tomorrow 9 times out of 10 the answer is just obvious. The day before we’ve been locked into the mindset of where we were at we couldn’t see it. Then once you take a step back you certainly see the wood for the trees and that’s the best way to handle it I think.
Dublin Editors: Nowadays the role of the editor has become increasingly more technical and more reliant on technology. In some cases there’s less time allowed for creativity. You’re suddenly getting an awful lot more rushes, 3, 4, 5times more than you would have been getting 10 years ago. How do you balance this and how do you keep up to date with the newest and the latest in terms of technology?
Anthony Boys: I do keep an eye on it, you have to. It’s part of the job, you have to know what’s going on. I do rely heavily on my assistants for a lot of that work. This is where I think the role of assistant has changed more than the role of editor over the last 10 years. Anything that I can get my assistant to do, which means I’m just cutting, if I’m just worrying about the cutting then that’s the perfect assistant to me. You have anything from laying in sound work to tiny little technicalities.
There’s a little trick that I use every now and again which is if there’s a frame that I want to make a cut on and the actor is blinking, … I have one assistant who is particularly very good at this, I can get him to make a freeze frame from 2 frames previously when his eyes are open, cut the eyes out and then paste them over the eyes so I can cut the frame I want. That’s 45 minutes worth of work. All of that stuff I really rely on my assistants for. That’s what makes a great assistant in my mind, the more of that work you can hand off to them that keeps you cutting, the better the assistant is.
Dublin Editors: Do you think your assistants tend to triage the rushes when they come in for you as well or is that something that you prefer to do yourself?
Anthony Boys: I’ll have them sync everything up and label everything and organize everything for me but I have to watch everything. I’ve got to watch every single frame, especially in comedy. When you audition lines for which is the best take, especially when you get good comedy actors, there’s very rarely 1 best take. There are 3 or 4 options which will enhance the comedy of the scene in a particular way so you have to know all of them because when you start changing the scene around those takes can change. So, what’s good in the assembly is no longer the best take come cut 4 or cut 5. Also, the amount of times when you’re stealing a look or a reaction from a completely different part of the scene to put somewhere else for comic effect you have to know where those are, they have to be stuck in your mind somewhere. Otherwise you can’t make the best scene possible so I have to watch every single second.
Dublin Editors: How do you approach the director-editor relationship? Do you get involved before post-production starts in the production process?
Anthony Boys: Getting involved during the production side entirely depends on the job. Coming onto something like when I did “Dr. Who” that’s such a machine. It’s such like a factory at work, they already have so many things in place that they’ll talk to you about the bare effects so you understand what they’re doing but they had a guy on there who has been doing it for 3 years that they know. There’s very little input for you to have because you’re part of a cog in a big machine.
When it comes to comedy as well, when the production’s more reliant on the script and because there’s so many clever people involved in something like “Veep” or “The Thick of It” it’s very hard for me to come in and say “Well I know what’s better than you guys.” Having said that, the films I’ve done, I definitely get involved in the production. This is, I think, one of the areas where films differ from TV, where films really are trying to squeeze budget down, especially low budget British productions. They will bring you in and ask you ways to save money.
That’s where you can get involved and that’s where you can say ‘well if you shot it like this, then you don’t need that, you don’t need to build 2 walls of the set, so that will save you cash’ and things like that. They’re really looking for you to help save the budget. Which you then make sure they put into editing to give you more time, that’s how you do that. That’s very fortunate.
Dublin Editors: Just on that point, how do you work with the director? Especially on something scripted like Veep?
Anthony Boys: If it’s the first time working with them, you’ve got to establish trust right away. They have to be able to trust you because almost every director will come in, and regardless of your first assembly, they’ll just see where they’ve messed up and they’ll just be panicking and worrying about the things they didn’t get right. You have to be able to let them know that it’s going to be fine and it’s going to be okay and together you’re going to make something brilliant out of this. So you have to establish trust.
Making people laugh is always a good way of doing that. Also because you are going to sit next to them for the next 3 months , so just becoming friends with them as quickly as possible … A good way of doing that is to also be very open yourself. Be very humble, nothing is ever a problem. Any suggestion they ever have, even if you can see it isn’t going to work, you do it anyway. Because sometimes also if you see it’s not going to work you do it and then you might explain to them why you think it doesn’t work. Then it might give you an idea of what might work as well. Be open, throw up ideas but don’t ever be precious.
It’s a very fine balance but ensure that it’s … Even though it’s you running the room ensure that they feel it’s their room and their show. That’s the best way to do it.
Dublin Editors: How thoughtful are you about your work, like do you assemble fast and refine or do you plan out how a scene is planning to play before you sit down?
Anthony Boys: I have a technique where my first assembly, I throw it together as quickly as I possibly can. I’ll just lump it together and then I’ll start fine cutting, but, that first assembly, no one ever sees that. What a director will call assemblies is my 3rd fine cut, if you will, my 3rd go at it. I would literally just throw the last takes down and have a very convergent scene but then I can use those takes as an anchor when I then audition other lines so my re-cutting stage. That’s when I’m auditioning lines, looking through all the footage and that’s when I’m really planning it out.
I find it easier to once have the scene in my head and then go this would better this and this would better this rather than looking at everything in one go and going ‘take 3 from this line will match up perfectly with take 8 from this ‘. That’s the way I like to do it.
Dublin Editors: Do you think that’s something that’s peculiar to comedy? Or is that something that you do when you’re cutting non-comedy like Dr. Who?
Anthony Boys: I think it is definitely more peculiar to comedy. When I did Dr. Who I started not doing it that way and very quickly changed back to watching everything and planning it out first before I put it down. So I think it might be peculiar to comedy. Also all of the drama editors I talk to, I say the drama editors but the editors who specialize in drama, they seem to plan everything out before they do it, so I think it might be a comedy thing.
Dublin Editors: Humour is obviously subjective; when you’re editing a show like ‘Veep’ do you think that the comic timing is mostly instinctive in the cutting or is there a grammar or a set of guidelines that you’re using?
Anthony Boys: It’s 100% instinctive. You are aware of film language and whenever you’re in a hole or something doesn’t work you could revert back to film theory and the grammar of shots to just get you through it. You’ll see something and something will just twig in the back of your brain and you’ll go, well that’s the best way of doing that. You put it in and it is. It’s 100% instinctive definitely.
Dublin Editors: How do you approach a scene or performance where the comedy isn’t quite working?
Anthony Boys: When you have a scene that isn’t quite working the first thing to do is you have a look at it and if it isn’t obvious exactly why it isn’t working then my first question is always do we need this scene? Can we lose it? If it’s going to be essential to the story or the show then we have to work on it. Generally going if they wrote it and it wasn’t right and they’ve acted it and it isn’t right and I’ve put it together it isn’t right, we’ve maybe have a fine go at it and it still isn’t right, maybe the scene just shouldn’t be in the show. That was my first reaction.
If it has to be in there then I just throw every trick in the book at it and just see. Sometimes you might move the lines around a little bit or you might look at other takes or sometimes you just reassemble it. A trick I sometimes do is go back to the assembly, and I’ll start again but I’ll have a rule where none of the lines I’ve used already, none of the takes I’ve used already I can use again. I have to reassemble it out, the stuff I haven’t used, just to see if there’s something in there that perhaps would give me a spark of inspiration of how to fix it.
Dublin Editors: That’s brilliant.
Anthony Boys: If none of that works then I just sort of pray that it will be all right in the end.
Dublin Editors: When you’re editing comedy, political comedy do you think it’s important to be au fait with those genres, or do you prefer to stay away from that kind of genre to stay fresh?
Anthony Boys: Political comedies are funny. The thing that really helps ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Veep’ is that first and foremost they’re workplace comedies rather than political comedies. So knowing that deep down and knowing the frustrations of what a workplace can be, I think it’s more important to realize what the sub-genre is.
Like ‘The Thick of it’ has more in common with ‘The Office’ than ‘Yes Minister’ at times. But equally I think rather than having knowledge of a particular genre, just having a knowledge of comedy really helps. I think that the more you watch the more of media you consume, the more your instincts will be you your finest. If you really want to work in comedy, you really want to edit comedy, just watch every comedy show you can. Watch all of it even if you don’t find it funny because you’ll just learn the rhythms and the way of telling jokes will just seep into your subconscious and it will always be there. You’ll just have an inkling of going – I just know in the scene that this is what the viewer’s going to want to see at this moment. It’s a gut feeling you’ll have when you’ve seen so much and consumed so much comedy.
I watch absolutely everything. My personal favourite sitcom of all time is probably ‘Porridge’. Just because it’s perfect. What I love about ‘Porridge’ is a lot of comedies are either about, so, British comedies are about an underdog or a loser to someone who’s just pathetic no matter what. A lot of American comedies are about a hero who is frustrated. ‘Veep’ and ‘The Thick of it’ are prime examples of that. ‘The Thick of It’ is about a low level, nothing politician who can’t get anything right and ‘Veep’ is about the vice president who still can’t get anything right but is frustrated.
‘Porridge’ sticks squarely in the middle. He’s neither a loser nor a hero, he operates underneath. He isn’t going to run the prison but he isn’t going to get taken advantage of either. It’s very rare you have a comedy that works in that well. ‘Blackadder’ is similar as well. ‘Blackadder’ is about a guy who’s sort of in the middle of the two worlds and I really like that about ‘Porridge’. There’s just something that gives it an extra edge.
Dublin Editors: On a show like ‘Veep’ that has multiple editors and multiple directors do you worry about a consistency in style across the series?
Anthony Boys: We did at the beginning. We had conversations about it in the beginning. We’re lucky on ‘Veep’ because we’ve all done ‘The Thick of It’ and it has a similar sort of style to ‘The Thick of It’. Even on ‘The Thick of It’ we’ve had some discussions about it. As soon as you see the first assembly of another edit you know what you’re doing. Between us we’ve had this, the 3 of us, me, Gary and Billy have had a conversation.[ ‘Veep’ Editors Gary Dollner and Billy Sneddon] We’ve had a conversation where individually we can work out who’s episode it is by looking at the edit. So I know the difference between Gary’s and Billy’s, obviously I know mine because I do them but I can see the difference between Gary’s and Billy’s but I don’t think anyone else can. I don’t even think the directors of the show can tell either. We’re all very aware of what the house style is. It comes to you very quickly. It just takes one scene and then you know it and you’re in and it’s fine.
Dublin Editors: It’s almost like you stay within the parameters but there is lots of wiggle room within that?
Anthony Boys: Yeah. Also, the directors are all great. The directors have a surprisingly wide range of shooting stars on ‘Veep’. Becky Martin and Chris Morris, for example, they shoot very differently because they have different methods with the actors that they like to use to get the best out of them but they’re also clever enough to be able to crop that in the editing and keep the same style throughout the show.
Dublin Editors: If you had to pick a favourite scene from a series or show you’ve cut what would it be and why?
Anthony Boys: I would say that it would be … It’s such a tough one, I’ve really thought about this question as well cos I’ve got a few in there that I love. It’s probably the sequence from episode 7 season 3 of Veep which is the London episode. It’s just because it was so much fun to do. It’s about a quarter of the length of everything they shot. It’s a combination of so many story lines.
Also, the other thing I love as well, is every single person in that scene, every single actor nails their performance 100%. That scene when they’re in the back room, they’re all playing their roles perfectly. None of them are too big; none of them are too small. They all fit into it wonderfully well, it’s one of the best acted things I’ve ever had the pleasure of editing. The whole sequence was so much fun to do, so that would have to be it.
Dublin Editors: You’re certainly very successful at this point. You’ve cut some seriously good shows.
Anthony Boys: Thank you very much, that’s very kind of you to say.
Dublin Editors: I don’t think it’s understating it. What I wanted to ask you was, bearing all that in mind, what are your ambitions from where you are now, your plans and your goals for the future?
Anthony Boys: That’s a really interesting question because I don’t really know. I think we’re just about to hit the peak of this television revolution. The way that TV has changed in the last 10 years is phenomenal. Everything from the budgets, to how it’s made, to everything. I’m really interested to see where we will be in 10 years time because we might be in a very different landscape than we are now. For that reason I find it hard to have a very set ambition knowing that that’s what I’m going to try to achieve because I don’t know the lay of the land 10 years from now. As long as I’m still making things that people like to watch and enjoy watching that I enjoy editing then I’ll be happy.
Dublin Editors: Have you any ambitions to do other things like to cut documentaries or do things that aren’t comedy?
Anthony Boys: I’ve done a couple of documentaries back in the day and they’re such hard work that I think I’ll say no thank you to those anymore. That’s a real skill, that’s a completely different skill set to the one I possess, I must say. I have real admiration for documentary editors and the way they do it.
I grew up on 80’s action films, Aliens, Predator, RoboCop, Terminator 2. They’re all my favourite films of all time so I’d love to do something like that. So One day I will go and do one of those … I already have words with my American agent about it. One day I want to do one of those movies.
Dublin Editors: So what’s your favourite film?
Anthony Boys: What’s my favourite film? If I was doing a Skype chat for some students and I wanted to appear impressive I would say the Seven Samurai but actually it’s Aliens.
Part of the reasons I got into this actually was my uncle worked at the Evening Standard and he was a delivery guy so he would take newspapers, stuff to print and run them down to the distribution centre. He went drinking with the two guys that reviewed films. They would give him their review VHS copies of movies after he was done. He would give them to me so I had this copy of Aliens on VHS when I was 9 years old. I watched it like every day, every summer holiday I watched it. Me and my brother would fight, he would want to watch Goonies and I would want to watch Aliens. That’s what we did every single morning of every summer holiday for like 5 years.
Dublin Editors: Is there anything else, any advice you might have to aspiring editors or to grown-up editors who fancy a change?
Anthony Boys: The one thing that’s said a lot is make sure you build relationships. Go out and meet people and build relationships because it is the relationships that will get you further. But No one really talks about how you do that so I would say that even though it’s really hard to do sometimes because you work hard and you’re really dedicated to advancing your career, especially when you’re a student, but you do have to go off and have adventures. You have to go and do crazy things so you’ve got stories. You can only learn how to get on with people by making lots and lots of new friends all the time.
If you do a round the world trip and stay in hostels, that’s how you learn to make friends with new people. I really recommend doing that. Becoming good at making friends with people, that’s how you get new relationships and that’s how you can meet someone. A drinks partner at a premier who’s an up and coming director, for 10 minutes I’m making enough of an impression to get their email address to then get hired on a job. So just goout and enjoy life and really that’s how you do that. So I recommend that.
Dublin Editors: That’s good advice.