Hulu’s new comedy series Only Murders in the Building follows three strangers (played by Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez) who find themselves entangled in a murder-mystery within their Manhattan apartment building. Relying on their knowledge of true crime and instincts, the trio attempt to solve the mystery, which involves spooky secrets and the realization a killer might live amongst them. It’s up to these unlikely partners to uncover the mystery.
Piecing the complex story together is editor JoAnne Yarrow, a member of American Cinema Editors and the Television Academy. A graduate from the University of Texas, Yarrow moved to Los Angeles in 2001 where she’s worked in the editorial department for many feature films and television series including You Again (2010), Everything Must Go (2010), G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra (2009), and National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Her TV credits include include ABC’s American Crime, the OWN series Queen Sugar, and Claws on TNT. Yarrow was nominated for an HPA Award for her work on the STARZ series Vida. Here she talks about her passion for editing and why Only Murders in the Building was the perfect project for her at the right time.
Jason: Would you like to begin by telling us about your background and introduction to the industry?
JoAnne Yarrow: I was enrolled in the film program at the University of Texas as a communication major. I moved to LA 20 years ago, two days before 9/11, which was a bit of a shock to the system. There was also a writers’ strike at the time, so it was all unsettling. It was hard to find a job as I didn’t have any contacts. I was able to get my first PA job and things rolled after that by working my way up to assisting on a feature, Jimi: All Is by My Side with the great editor Hank Corwin (Natural Born Killers, Vice).
Jason: And this led to you becoming editor on American Crime?
JoAnne Yarrow: John Ridley was the director of Jimi and he had a pilot at ABC and asked me to join. The pilot was picked up and at that point I was supposed to work on Thor or some big action movie, but John asked me if I was going to stay and I told him, ‘If I was an editor I’ll stay,’ and he made it happen [laughs]. So John gave me my first big break and everything comes full circle and I’m working with him again right now on the AppleTV+ show, Five Days at Memorial about hurricane Katrina.
Jason: At what point did you realize editing was the right fit for you?
JoAnne Yarrow: Growing up TV was my companion in a lot of ways if for no other reason than I loved it. I loved being entertained. I didn’t think this was an actual job I could do in any capacity, but when I was in college at UT, I took a film class and they told us to make a Super 8 movie. In mine I played with stop motion animation and I lit everything as bright as I could and when I took the film and watched it for the first time I thought it was magic and I knew this was for me. It felt special. Later I was working on a film in the RTF program and I was carting a bin of trims between floors when I realized during editing two frames were missing, so I retraced my steps and found those frames in an elevator—but that just shows you the power two frames can make when cutting. That taught me the power of editing.
Jason: Do you find inspiration in terms of other filmmakers or teachers?
JoAnne Yarrow: I’m inspired right now by some emerging people. Janicza Bravo of (the 2020 film) Zola and seeing what she’s going to bring excites me. Carlos López Estrada who did Blindspotting (2018)—when I saw that movie, I was blown away by his vision. For me right now it’s about being able to try different things and be in different spaces and play around in all kinds of genres and that’s what’s exciting to me right now.
Jason: Can you provide an example of where your intuition to think outside the box worked for you?
JoAnne Yarrow: I think some of that started with Hank Corwin’s inspiration to be honest. I didn’t work with him very long but he made a strong impression on me, as you can imagine [laughs]. He was fearless and always experimenting and he was never afraid to try something, and I admired that. I don’t know if I’m as fearless as he is, but it inspires me into not finding myself trapped into what I think a thing should be. Things don’t always have to fit into a tidy little box. In American Crime we used non-traditional editing by playing with time, collapsing it, bringing scenes together by inter-cutting them, and that was a fun way to work. We were working on multiple levels and you had to think about it. I’m working on a scene like that now where you have to think about what you want to show over what is heard, and it becomes complicated, but it becomes incredibly rich. In storytelling, it’s always great to think about where something like this could work. We did it a lot on American Crime and we’re doing it in this upcoming show Five Days at Memorial. It’s wonderful to tap into that creative vein in a project when it’s called for.
Jason: You’ve worked on minor projects and enormous projects. Is there one you prefer working on over the other?
JoAnne Yarrow: I always say I love all my babies the same and I enjoy being able to work in between the two. I love working on an intimate movie when it’s just an editor and assistant in the low million dollar range. Then, being on a major blockbuster where there’re enormous posters and everybody knows what you’re on, that’s also exciting. Any project with more money has more luxury and you’re doing less yourself and more professionals are there to help the project get to a polished level quicker, and that’s nice.
Jason: The new series Only Murders in the Building has big stars yet is an intimate story, so it provides both elements. Can you tell us about your process in helping create this?
JoAnne Yarrow: It was a joy! It was this gem that came to me in the middle of a pandemic and brought me so much laughter and light and the creators, John Hoffman and Steve Martin (who both wrote the pilot), are equally warm. I had not read a comedy script like that in probably ever. Dan Fogelman (of NBC’s This Is Us) was a producer and Jamie Babbit directed the first two of the ten episodes, so those were all incredible people to work with. When I saw the dailies with these icons that I grew up watching and loving, I had to pinch myself that I was even allowed to be in this position. It was very easy in that sense. It just flowed. Their dynamic was great and then Selena Gomez came in and she just killed it along with them. They’re like the uncles to her. They are a family and you sense that. It was really fun to see episode-to-episode them as a trio becoming tighter. For me, it was unique in a few ways. It was a straighter comedy than I had done in the past. I thought it was going to be a challenge at first since I’ve done a lot of drama I wondered if I could cut comedy—and the answer is yes! This project was a release and relief for me to have been a part of it. Our composer, Siddhartha Khosla, had recorded some music before we started and we sent home edited pieces early on, so it was nice to have that tone and feeling from the beginning.
Jason: How do you shift from a dramatic project to a comedic one such as this?
JoAnne Yarrow: I said something to the creators of Only Murders in my interview for this job where people talk about film being an empathy machine and I believe editors have to be incredibly empathetic. I feel I have a grasp on the full range of human emotion and I think all editors do. The show I’m editing now is much slower-paced than the snappy one of Only Murders in the Building, but the feeling of a show or dramatic situation comes naturally to me. The footage and scripts of a project show themselves for what they are. Working in drama and comedy is all great.
Jason: You touched upon how this project came to you during the pandemic and provided you with laughs and relief, and I’m wondering if you choose projects that provide that relief for audiences yet also choose projects that provide an opportunity to reflect our culture? An example is that one storyline in Murders is that the characters start a true crime podcast from their experience which seems to be the trend today.
JoAnne Yarrow: Absolutely. Just look at the phenomenon surrounding true crime podcasts and documentaries so it is very much what we are going through entertainment wise. We all have those guilty pleasures which made this appealing to me because I love all that stuff too. Comedy is such a release. We need to be laughing right now. I know if Only Murders in the Building provides just a small percentage of joy to the audience that it did for me while working on it, it will lift people’s spirits.
Jason: I’ve interviewed a few editors in the past few months, many of whom have worked on shows for Comedy Central and Netflix, but I’m not sure I’ve interviewed an editor who’s worked in network. Is there a difference between working in the two?
JoAnne Yarrow: Yes, there are [laughs]. Having worked on TV and film, I relate it in that respect because there’s so much more freedom in a feature than streaming. Running times are not an issue. For an ABC series you have to hit a mark but premium cable are more open to different running times. One thing that is a constraint on an editor is to have to fit into a pre-described box, so what’s nice is in streaming there’s more flexibility. On ABC we would get network notes about not using curse words which were written into the script and the actors did perform them but when it aired we flashed to black which became a signature of the show yet when it streamed on Netflix we restored the curses so you could see it in its entirety. It was telling the same story in two different ways.
Jason: I like to ask editors this question because I’m interested in their perspective: is there a film or TV show you’ve seen which in your opinion you consider to be perfectly edited?
JoAnne Yarrow: One thing I learned in editing is that everything is subjective and what is right for one person is not right for somebody else, but just off the top of my head, I loved I, Tonya. Tone is very interesting and there is that narrow line we’re allowed to walk and we can fall off either side very quickly. I, Tonya, had all these moments which teetered between drama and comedy so flawlessly. I thought it was beautifully cut by Tatiana S.Riegel who did an amazing job.
Jason: Thank you for your time in talking with us. I hope everyone reading looks at your work on Only Murders in the Building.
JoAnne Yarrow: Thank you. I’m so excited about this show. I’ve never been one to anticipate the release of a project I’ve worked on, but I am for this one and the people who worked on it are excited for it and that’s wonderful to witness.
The first two episodes of Only Murders in the Building premiere August 31 on Hulu with new episodes to air weekly.