Producer of The People Vs. O.J. Simpson talks about editing and storytelling
Two-time Emmy-winning producer and University of Colorado Boulder alumna Alexis Martin Woodall (BFA-film production, BA-film studies ’02) says CU Boulder’s film-studies program gave her the power to craft compelling stories on the editing floor.
Most recently, Martin Woodall won Emmys for The People Vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, about the trial that galvanized the United States.
Although her projects tend to feature horror and violence, Martin Woodall believes good film doesn’t need to shock. It just has to work.
“Everyone in film school feels like they have to be tormented to be successful, but they don’t,” Martin Woodall says. “If I believe in my story, it’s going to make everyone interested in it.”
She made successful angst-free films at CU Boulder: a documentary about her parents and a “1950s educational film about the year I gave my sister a Christmas present that didn’t quite please her.”
Martin Woodall credits CU Boulder’s film professors Melinda Barlow, Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz and Phil Solomon with her successes. But she learned one of her most valuable lessons about film from Stan Brakhage, who died the year after she graduated.
“He taught me not to be a film snob,” she says. “I remember one day he came into class, and he had had the most delightful weekend. He saw three films: one was an art-house film, one was a (big-budget) film, and one was the Santa Clause 3, and he enjoyed them all equally. He saw the joy in everything. He taught me that it’s OK to like what you like. For all the perceptions of what film as art should be, at the end of the day, we should be storytellers, and we should have fun.”
I disappeared for three days in the creepy Macky basement to edit (her BFA) film. This was right before cell phones, and I would play the radio just to hear commercials to connect me with the outside world.”
As executive producer, Martin Woodall spins her magic on each episode of television before sending it to show creator, Ryan Murphy.
Martin Woodall makes decisions like, “What story are we telling? Does it make sense? Does it work?” If not, she recuts, re-tones, reworks music cues, and ultimately re-spins the story.
Though the writing process is vital, she says that to tell a compelling story, the editorial side of things is just as important.
“I’m always remembering that we want to tell stories that move people. I´m always assessing how effective we are (at that),” says Martin Woodall, who has also worked on projects including Glee, American Horror Story, and Nip/Tuck.
When she first moved from Boulder to Los Angeles in 2002, she was out of work for her first 10 months there. Then she started as a post-production assistant for Nip/Tuck, where, she says, “I worked my face off. I was the only 23-year-old production assistant dressed in heels lugging bags around.”
Because CU Boulder´s film program focuses on the experimental, she had to learn all aspects of the filmmaking process and how to keep a film budget on the job.
By the third season, she was promoted to her current role of executive producer.
“Making a TV show is like a giant version of film school,” Martin Woodall says.
“My 8-millimeter film class gave me a really safe space to be creative and find my voice,” Martin Woodall says. “I had to shoot light and cut the film myself. You get to wear a lot of different hats since you´re not allowed to have a crew until senior year.”
This gave her more control over her work and taught her that “the only way to have singular vision is to have complete control.”
Her ability to see the big picture allows her to collaborate with the fashion and makeup departments as they complete their part of telling the story.
Working on her BFA, Martin Woodall got to audition all arenas of filmmaking. She found that holding a camera and shooting scenes is not for her. Instead, she loves editing and making decisions.
“I disappeared for three days in the creepy Macky basement to edit (her BFA) film. This was right before cell phones, and I would play the radio just to hear commercials to connect me with the outside world.”
Editing, she learned, gave her closer proximity to storytelling.
Storytelling is not just technical, Martin Woodall says. “It’s also very artistic.” When she edits, she asks herself, “How can we take the audience further?”
An example of this is evidenced in episode nine of The People Vs. O.J. Simpson. In it, the court and TV viewers have to hear the Mark Fuhrman tapes in which he says the n-word. This is the climax of both the trial and TV series.
Martin Woodall says the scene was “horrible and moving, but not enough.” So she decided to take out the score.
“I wanted the audience to not be pulled through by the music, because it feels very naked to have to listen to this stuff without it,” she says.
The resulting effect emphasized the starkness and strength of the word, and intensified the dramatic arc.