From Directing To The Cutting Room Floor: An Interview With Steven Sprung
Steven Sprung, the editor behind some of biggest cult classic TV shows such as Arrested Development and Community, reveals how he got his start, details about his latest film, and his connection to the “Big Yellow Joint.”
To get to Emmy-nominated editor and director Steven Sprung’s office on the Paramount lot, one has to make their way through the library set of Greendale Community College from NBC’s Community, get past a massive blockade of traffic from “Ringer”, and casually pass by stars such as Dr. Phil and Danny Pudi (Abed of Community), en route to their respective sets.
Steven warmly greets me at the top of the stairs in the editing building and takes me to his office, the door of which is adorned with a sign denoting the current show Sprung is working on. Right now it’s ABC’s Happy Endings, the story of a tight-knit group of successful friends living in Chicago. Inside the spacious office, a large leather couch sits in front of dual monitors, a Macbook and a massive HD TV screen paused on the image of a grinning Eliza Coupe, one of the main cast members on Happy Endings. At the time of this interview, Sprung had cut six episodes of the show, and the one he had up in the editing timeline aired March 21st. To the right of the couch stands a drum-set, which Sprung states is for “recreation.” Having originally come to LA working odd jobs like limo driving while trying to make it in the industry, the director, writer and editor for TV and film has done pretty well for himself.
Developing an interest in film as a teenager, Sprung first started shooting on a Super 8 camera and cutting his own VHS tapes. It wasn’t until he was a sophomore at Syracuse University when, in the middle of editing a film project, he had his big ‘aha’ moment. Finding a reaction shot and inserting it into the film, he had a revelation. “I’d stumbled upon the key to seamless editing. Yeah, it was a basic, rudimentary edit, but it worked in a way that I was never able to do before.”
Sprung never had formal training in editing. Instead, he learned by following examples in the films and television shows he watched. “I would observe very carefully and attempt to recreate the rhythms. I knew I was on to something because my work began to look and play like what I was used to seeing at the movies and on TV. I practiced and practiced, editing a bunch of films for people in college. I just kept doing it.”
Once he had been in LA for a while, Sprung shifted from working odd jobs to being a production assistant on major films. One of his first professional post-production gigs came as an assistant editor on the first season of the TV show Clueless. He proved himself by editing scenes for his editor and subsequently writing, directing and editing his own 40 minute short film. Much to his surprise, when Clueless was picked up for a second season, his editor recommended him for promotion to full editor. This lead to a string of successes for Sprung, including the critically acclaimed, though short-lived shows, The Tick and Andy Richter Controls the Universe, as well as HBO’s Entourage.
Sprung was also one of the editors of the cult-favorite show, Arrested Development (he received an Emmy nomination for the first season finale), and more recently, the critically praised and beloved-by-fans Community. At the time of the interview, Community was still benched from NBC’s midseason lineup, and Sprung was as in the dark as anyone regarding when it would return. He speculated it would not go the way of Arrested Development. Community is one of those amazing shows that steps way outside the box, and for that reason it has a big following among people who really love high quality exciting television.” Sprung currently has his hands tied with Happy Endings, which he showed me in his editing timeline on Avid Media Composer.
“Typically, I begin editing an episode the day they start production or the morning after. If it starts shooting on a Monday, I’ll start getting footage this afternoon.” In major television productions, the editor is usually one day behind production. If not distracted by editing older episodes or going back and making minor changes at the request of the studio and the network, Sprung will generally have a rough cut of everything shot from Monday to Friday by the middle of the following week. From there, it will take about another 4-5 weeks for an episode to go through the process of preparing to air. The first person to see the show after he does his “editor’s cut” is the director, who comes in and works with Sprung for two or three days. After making a director’s cut, producers begin their process of shaping the episode. The last person to put their touches on the show is the creator of the show, or the showrunner, which is often the same person. In the case of Community, creator/showrunner Dan Harmon worked closely with Sprung on episodes such as the famous paintball shootout early in season one, “reworking certain scenes to have a whole different effect.”
Up until that first paintball episode, Community had been mostly grounded in realism. It was both rewarding and challenging for Sprung to edit an episode that was, for lack of better word, really ‘out there’. “I had to make a mental adjustment because the episode was more complicated and unlike any that had come before. Justin Lin, the well known action director of The Fast and the Furious franchise, had been brought on to direct it, and he did an unbelievable job.”
Having honed his directing skills on a myriad of smaller films and independent films in his career, Sprung really came into his own when he directed the season two Valentine’s Day themed episode of Community and this year, an episode of Happy Endings.
And most recently Sprung’s passion project, which he referred to as “his baby,” a full length, independent film called Dispatch, which Sprung directed, co-wrote, and edited is on DVD and running just started running on a major cable network. “Dispatch was something I created from scratch with my producing-writing partner Michael Bershad. It’s the story of one night in the life of a Hollywood limo dispatcher so it follows this one guy throughout one night dealing with celebrities, drivers and all that stuff. Michael and I actually met when we were driving limos. He went on to become a limo dispatcher. He was working late one night and we were talking about what film we might want to do next and he said ‘we have to write a film about this crazy job.’ I thought that was a great idea, so we ran with it. He began telling me stories of the experiences he’d had on the job and a year-year and a half later, we had a finished script.”
When addressing the gap between directing and editing, Sprung said directing is much more demanding. “Getting it done well while meeting the demands of the schedule is always a challenge… I’m used to that as an editor, but as a director you are dependent upon 100 or more crew members to deliver. It’s very different from sitting in a room making decisions on my own all day long. I love it. It’s a thrill, especially when you see the results.”
- Steven Sprung directing an episode of Happy Endings
Even when he’s not directing, Sprung is able to bring some added touches to many scenes he edits over the course of his career, and on a couple of shows he was responsible for a few iconic jokes which he created entirely in post-production. He looks back fondly on the episode of Arrested Development from season one, Pier Pressure, in which protagonist Michael Bluth and his conniving brother Gob try to teach Michael’s son the dangers of drugs. For this episode, Sprung wrote and performed one of the most famous gags on the show, the “Big Yellow Joint” song.
“All I had to work with in the editing room were some lyrics written in the script for a song called the “Big Yellow Joint”. So I decided to have some fun. I had some music on my hard drive and I downloaded a song that had a riff I thought might be good. I recorded my voice with a made-up tune to go with the lyrics and I cut it into the episode. When it came time to choose the final music for the episode, we were all in the editing room making decisions about what to keep and what to change. When we got to the song, executive producer Mitch Hurwitz turned to the composer and said, ‘I love it’. The composer said he didn’t know where it came from. That’s when I told them that I made it up. Mitch nodded and said, ‘Great, rework the music and have Sprung go into the studio and record the final vocals.’ I even got to join BMI. They used the song in Pier Pressure and again in many subsequent episodes. I love that people enjoy it.”
With his growing resume of quality film and television viewers can expect to see many more great projects from Sprung in the future. Right now, Sprung is developing another feature film, a paranormal mystery, with Bershad. On top of that, Sprung is still working around the clock, directing and editing quality episodes of primetime television on a strict deadline. “We have people working 24/7 and coming in on weekends.” Sprung said. At the time we spoke, the seasonal Christmas episodes were set to air within days and were still being wrapped up.
- Steven Sprung at the finish line on the set of Happy Endings
Even with the vast amount of work, Sprung legitimately enjoys his job and you can tell that he’s grateful for the opportunity to work around iconic family-like casts and crews. “I love it all,” Sprung said. “‘Happy Endings is freakin’ funny. It’s grounded in reality and everyone in the cast has a great, different personality.”
Despite his acclaim, success, and his friendships with the creators and stars of TV and films, Sprung has managed to remain humble. “The truth is that the people we look up to are just people. There’s this image that they are above the rest of us. But when you get to know them, you find everyone is pretty much the same—well known and unknown. It’s surprising how ordinary everyone is. What is not ordinary is their commitment; to their jobs, to their passion and in the best cases, to other people.”
“I got into this business because I want to contribute something positive in the world. That’s my not-so-secret passion, and it starts with my interactions with the people around me. I try to think in terms of what I can give. That inspires me.”
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