INTERVIEW: Editor Shawn Paper Discusses The Broken Hearts Gallery

From executive producer Selena Gomez, the film The Broken Hearts Gallery follows the story film of a young woman navigating the art world in New York City. Emmy-nominated editor Shawn Paper, ACE (VEEP, What We Do in The Shadows) ensured that the magic in the script and on set successfully made it to the screen.

The Broken Hearts Gallery comes from writer/director Natalie Krinsky, best known for her work as a writer and story editor on Gossip Girl. The film stars Geraldine Viswanathan (Bad Education)as Lucy Gulliver, a New York art gallery assistant who turns heartbreak into art by creating an exhibit of souvenirs from past relationships.

In The Broken Hearts Gallery, Lucy is all about speaking her truth, letting it all hang out, regardless of the consequences. But she’s also an emotional hoarder, holding things neurotically close. While her friends and lovers find this paradox both endearing and maddening, it’s one that Lucy must reconcile to find happiness — and one that Shawn had to convey on screen in a way that was both crystal clear and nuanced.

PopAxiom spent time talking with Shawn about this and other editing challenges, as well as the critical role editing plays in the final product. With over two decades in the film and television industry, Shawn’s credits include Girls, Parks and Recreation, Flight of The Conchords, Ugly Betty, and films such as That Awkward Moment.

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How did he get his start? “What landed me in Hollywood was the US Navy, back in 1991” Shawn says. A Navy reservist while studying theater and literature at Bennington College in Vermont, Shawn got activated for Operation Desert Storm soon after he graduated, with pre-deployment exercises taking place in the scorching California desert. There, he and his fellow reservists, in full military gear, simulated chemical warfare conditions in preparation for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Because the ground war to liberate Kuwait lasted just four days, Shawn’s deployment was canceled as he and his battalion stood on the military airport tarmac, preparing to ship out. Friends in Los Angeles urged Shawn to hang out for a while before going back East to pursue an acting career in New York City.

One thing led to another, and he ended up sticking around. Shawn’s first gig landed him right back in the California desert, as a PA on a Carole King video. “I worked in every department, did every job, including being Carole’s driver,” he says. “It was surreal to be back in the desert, this time on a set, where a totally different simulation was happening, compared with my Navy Ops. The PA job was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.”

It was also Shawn’s first exposure to editing. During post-production, he was allowed into the editing room where, he recalls, “I saw how the editor was assembling the footage and thought, ‘This is where the magic happens!’”

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Button By Button

But magic takes work. It’s the kind of work Shawn took to immediately. “Editing is putting a puzzle together. You make creative decisions to pull together tight stories from hours of footage and solve problems like an off performance or a narrative blindspot.”

Still, how was he to land a job in that profession when he had no prior editing experience? Thanks to his time in the Navy’s Seabees, where his detachment built airstrips and other Naval infrastructure in mere days, Shawn knew how to learn on the fly. He landed himself an interview at Warner Brothers, talking his way into a job. “I told them, ‘Well, I’m good with computers,’ and next thing I knew I was working as an assistant editor for Fred W. Berger,” the first president of American Cinema Editors (ACE), known for his work on hit shows such as Gunsmoke and MASH.

Shawn says that Fred hired him “to be his hands” for several Dallas reunion movies-of-the-week. “A legend in the business, Fred was 82 years old when I met him,” recalls Shawn. “Digital editing software was brand new at that time. Until then, everybody was still literally cutting and splicing film.” Rather than fuss with learning to use a keyboard and mouse, Fred guided Shawn through his editing decisions, button by button.

“It was a priceless apprenticeship,” Shawn says. “No editor wants to be just a button pusher, but for me, as a beginner, the opportunity was second to none.”

Fred not only told Shawn where and how to cut, but also why he was making those cuts. “He was a true mentor to me,” says Shawn. “Being Fred’s hands, while also gleaning 60 years of history of film and television from him, was my film school.”

The importance of that mentorship experience has informed Shawn’s own approach to working with assistants. He says that “I bring my assistants into the room and have conversations with them about the cut, as well as give them a first pass at cutting scenes.” Shawn adds that this kind of mentorship approach is consistent with the original aims of the Motion Picture Editors Guild, which he wants to uphold.

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About The Broken Hearts Gallery

How did he become part of the Broken Hearts team? “I loved the script and the casting.” Broken Hearts’ character diversity is consistent with Shawn’s long history of working on productions featuring female protagonists, people of color, and LGBTQ characters. “The show Flight of the Conchords being an exception, stories with straight white guys at their center generally don’t interest me,” Shawn says. “The Broken Hearts Gallery is about a woman who curates her life as much as she curates art. She self-creates, rather than conforms to society’s expectations about how a woman should look and behave.”

This nonconformist ethos is practically a litmus test for the projects Shawn chooses to work on, ranging from Ugly Betty, a dramedy featuring an awkward NYC fashion editorial assistant who succeeds despite ridicule, to What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary about pansexual Old World vampires living in high gothic style on today’s Staten Island.

Wrapping Up

Shawn’s influences are varied. They include Robert Wise, an editor-turned-director. Shawn remembers watching Wise’s West Side Story again while editing a sendup of a gang fight for Flight of the Conchords. “I was blown away by the cinematic angles Wise chose, how perfectly he synced them to the music and action.”

Shawn says he appreciates “directors who make deliberate choices like that.” Sidney Lumet is another such director who Shawn admires for his deliberateness. “Lumet came out of theater and then went to live television. Twelve Angry Men was originally released as a teleplay. How do you make two hours that take place in one room so riveting? It’s all in the cinematic language of acting, camera movement, composition and a good edit.

“Another great inspiration to me is Carol Littleton. It wasn’t until after I knew the body of her work, editing for directors like Jonathan Demme and Lawrence Kasdan, that I looked back on one of her first films. E.T. the Extraterrestrial (Steven Spielberg) was a film that inspired me to work in cinema. It was one of the first films Carol edited, and remains to me an editorial feat. The main character was a puppet, which you could easily see – but she found the takes, found the moments when this puppet moved just right and she edited it just so – to make it convincing. She’d jumped the Uncanny Valley, and we the audience feared for, wept for, and cheered for the kids getting the alien puppet back home.“

There’s a scene early on in the film where Elliot first encounters E.T. He’s searching through a cornfield and the creature is just a shadow in the stalks. “I was completely terrified as a kid at that moment when Elliot is overwhelmed, in short visceral jump cuts, by the terror of the unknown. That was in no small part to her editing choices.”

“Since then, I always keep in mind when I’m cutting whether the audience is following the plot or is ahead of it. If the audience has already figured out where we’re going, and not viscerally caught up in the moment, then as a storyteller, I’ve got to figure out a way to keep them engaged.”

When asked what remake he would love to be a part of, Shawn points to one that’s already in progress. “Taika Waititi is doing Time Bandits as a series. That’s two great tastes that go great together, Taika and Terry Gilliam. I would love to join the fun at some point, if the moons align.”

The Broken Hearts Gallery comes out on September 11. So, what’s next for Shawn? A new TV series called Sweet Tooth, created by Jim Mickle and produced by Robert Downey, Jr’s company, ramps up production in New Zealand this month. “It’s an adaptation of a DC comic book series,” explains Shawn, “with a timely plot and message. Much as I love editing comedy, after half-year of sheltering in place, I’m really excited to work on an action adventure show. That said, my first social outing in ages was attending the drive-in premiere of The Broken Hearts Gallery last week, and it was a blast.”

Is The Broken Hearts Gallery on your watch list?

Thanks to Shawn Paper and Backlight Public Relations
for making this interview possible.

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Ruben Diaz
Ruben Diaz
Writer, film-fanatic, geek, gamer, info junkie & consummate Devil's advocate who has been fascinated by Earth since 1976. Classically trained in the ways of the future.