Catching up with Editor and AFI Alum Varun Viswanath
Editor and AFI alum Varun Viswanath (AFI Class of 2012), ACE, has steadily built an enviable list of credits since graduating from the AFI Conservatory. His editing work includes the coming-of-age black comedy I AM NOT OK WITH THIS, the supernatural comedy series WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS – for which he was nominated for Best Edited Comedy Series at the 2021 ACE Eddie awards – and the dramedy BLINDSPOTTING, based on the acclaimed independent film. His latest series RESERVATION DOGS – a rare story depicting Indigenous youth in all their complexity, was created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi and is set to premiere August 9 on FX on Hulu.
A member of American Cinema Editors and the Motion Pictures Editors Guild, Varun’s versatility as an editor is evident with his work on a wide range of indie features, TV pilots, web series, music videos and promos for The Academy, Dakota Films, Vice x YouTube, Issa Rae Productions, ColorCreative, among others. AFI spoke with him about his new comedy RESERVATION DOGS, the importance of representation onscreen and the power of the AFI alumni network.
AFI: What initially drew you to editing as a career and how did you first get your start? Which filmmakers inspired you growing up and shaped you into the editor you are today?
Varun: I still remember the rush I felt when I made my first good cut in a film – the scene opened on a sharply dressed man in strong angular lighting, giving a scathing cynical monologue straight to camera, motioning emphatically with a cigar – as one does. I cut to the overhead close-up of the cigar just as he was twisting the knife in with his speech – and it just…worked. It feels very trivial now after 15 years of hindsight, but at the time it embodied everything I have come to love about editing. I get to live and breathe the rhythm, timing and precision of storytelling; guide the final decisions on a long pipeline of artistic efforts on how the story is experienced by the audience; and sometimes surprise people with how footage can be used to do things they weren’t initially intended to do.
I found my way into filmmaking after many years of producing theater and live performances in high school and college. I was always the key behind-the-scenes person wearing multiple hats and barking into a walkie headset. After college, my theater group transitioned into making short films on weekends while juggling day jobs, and the editor hat that I put on fit surprisingly well. After multiple shorts and an indie feature, I applied to film schools in both producing and editing programs – and AFI made my career decision for me by accepting me into the Editing discipline. My first real job in editing was interning for AFI Editing alum Jarod Shannon (AFI Class of 2011) on a documentary as his second assistant editor, while I was still finishing up my Thesis films. After graduating from AFI, I got my first TV assistant editor job on a reality show through a recommendation from another AFI Editing alum Jason Schwab (AFI Class of 2007) and worked my way up from there.
The filmmakers I’ve always admired are Guy Ritchie, Edgar Wright, Spike Lee, Charlie Kaufman and Tim Burton. I also came of age to ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, THE OFFICE and THE WEST WING – and they really set the stage for the type of TV shows I’m drawn to. Growing up in India, I also watched a lot of films in my family’s native language – Tamil. It is a classical language from South India, and the dialogue-driven comedy in Tamil is usually very fast spoken with tightly honed rhythms, vocal cadence and timing developed over centuries of literary and theatrical traditions. The comedic works of Kamal Hassan, “Crazy” Mohan Rangachari, K. Balachander and Singeetham Srinivasa Rao laid early foundations for my love for comedy, and hopefully improved my comedic instincts as well.
AFI: RESERVATION DOGS is your second collaboration on a Taika Waititi series. Can you talk about how you became involved with the project and what it was like to collaborate with Taika, Sterlin Harjo and Blackhorse Lowe?
Varun: I was brought into the Taika Waititi world by my long-time boss and mentor, Yana Gorskaya, who has been one of Taika’s editors from his early days. I started on the WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS pilot as Yana’s Assistant Editor, and over the first two seasons I was promoted to Editor. When the RESERVATION DOGS pilot was announced, I was instantly drawn to it and immediately put my hand up to edit on the show. Both productions share a few producers who vouched for me, and after an interview with Sterlin Harjo, I was hired.
Listening to Taika, Sterlin and Blackhorse direct while reviewing the footage is almost as interesting and entertaining as watching their finished shows on screen. Taika gives us tons of hour-long takes of the best improv comedy workshop you’ll ever see, which have to get painstakingly distilled down to the best 22-25 minutes to fit into a half-hour slot. On RESERVATION DOGS, I’ve found Sterlin’s and Blackhorse’s clarity of vision and commitment to bold choices really inspiring. I love the unique mix of interpersonal and intergenerational comedy in our show, its refreshing take on small-town community and a surprising amount of heart and joy.
AFI: Can you describe your preparation for the series? Is your approach the same on every project or does it differ depending on tone, theme and the people involved?
Varun: Apart from watching the directors’ previous work, I read a lot about the history and timeline of Native American tribes in Oklahoma and listened to music from Native artists across various genres. I also try to squeeze my way into concept meetings, tone meetings, table reads, etc. to observe and listen, so I can get a deeper understanding of the showrunners’ and directors’ vision, creative references, communication style and how they work through problems. My general approach to preparation has been similar across projects, and I have been fortunate that two of my last three shows were TV adaptations of feature films – and studying those films in detail went a long way in helping me to prepare.
AFI: What editing software did you use to cut the series? Can you describe your process of working with the directors while editing the project?
Varun: RESERVATION DOGS is edited on Avid Media Composer, as are all the other TV shows I’ve worked on thus far – however I do see the rise of Adobe Premiere shows around me. On TV shows, we don’t usually get the luxury of screening the cut with the director in the room with us. They usually get sent an output of the cut to watch at home. After a nerve-wracking sleepless night of hoping the director doesn’t hate you for ruining their episode, the typical first director’s cut day starts with discussing their overall notes and thoughts, and showing them alternate versions of key moments and scenes that I have saved.
I usually work on this first round myself, or split the workload up with my Assistant Editor, and we turn around a work-in-progress by the end of the day. On subsequent days, we spend time working together in the editing room, focusing in detail on specific scenes that need the most work, trying out different music options, or any scene restructure ideas. This process varies between different directors’ work style and on how tight or generous the show’s schedule is, but it usually follows a similar overall structure. After the director’s cut, I typically have two or three weeks of working with the creators/Executive Producers of the show in a similar way, with rounds of notes from the studio and network layered in before we lock an episode. The pandemic has forced all of us to adapt, but even with the added layers of live streaming and video-conferencing, this process has largely kept the same bones.
AFI: In The Hollywood Reporter, actor Devery Jacobs spoke about the abundance of Indigenous people in nearly every department on RESERVATION DOGS – something she had “never encountered” on a set before. Can you talk about the importance of showcasing Indigenous stories and having representation both onscreen and off?
Varun: Being in a minority group myself, I have a deep appreciation for the importance of seeing yourself represented with real depth, breadth and nuance on an equal platform as majority groups. In my experience, seeing people of your community and people you identify with coming together to create a film or a TV show or any piece of art gives you a different level of freedom, familiarity and confidence to be true to yourself. It gives you the opportunity to shed heavy layers of performing for a majority group’s gaze that you might not even realize you were burdened by. There are many more expert voices to speak to the importance of Indigenous stories specifically – but I’ll say this: they deserve to tell their stories in their own voices and feel empowered to showcase their work on equal platforms – and I’m grateful to creators like Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo for paving the path for wider representation.
I personally have my own struggles with being trapped in a South-Asian model minority mindset, my complicated relationship with western society’s stereotypes of my people and its limited view of the culture, films and music of my home country. And it’s not just western society either. I experienced similar issues with different details when I was living in South East Asia as well. Being a relatively recent immigrant to the U.S., it’s a hard balance to strike between artistic ambitions of subverting stereotypes, and the subconscious pressure to “fit in” and “assimilate” so I can continue to get work and live safely in America as a big, brown man with an accent. But working on diversely cast and staffed shows like WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS and largely minority cast and staffed shows like BLINDSPOTTING and RESERVATION DOGS has given me a taste of what life can be when you get to work with people who you identify with, who innately empathize with your struggles, who treat you as one of their own – and I hope I get to do this all the time.
AFI: Can you talk about your trajectory and what projects you’re drawn to?
Varun: I’m drawn to working on comedies with strong emotional backbones, and favor stories with themes of social commentary, identity crises and coming-of-age. I get even more excited when we’re trying to forge new ground, subvert stereotypes and distort genres. And there’s a special joy in working on a show that is as committed to being silly and absurd as WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS.
My work before coming to AFI and Hollywood was mostly in dark, cynical comedy. Soon after graduating AFI, I got my first experience with coming-of-age comedy on the indie feature MISS INDIA AMERICA, which was mostly cast and staffed by South-Asians. Parallelly, AFI alum and all-around good human Deniese Davis (AFI Class of 2012) brought me in to edit a few web series and TV pilots that she was producing with Issa Rae before their HBO days. My TV comedy path started on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT’s Season 4 Remix as an Assistant Editor and eventually Additional Editor. After that, I was fortunate to team up with the amazing editors Yana Gorskaya and Dane McMaster on multiple comedy series and pilots. I built my editing credits with them on TRIAL & ERROR, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, I AM NOT OKAY WITH THIS and the pilot of RESERVATION DOGS. The EPs on BLINDSPOTTING then sought me out to work on their show – and I managed to wrap that just in time to come back to edit the first (of hopefully many) seasons of RESERVATION DOGS.
AFI: What led you to the AFI Conservatory? And what lessons did you learn at AFI that you still carry with you in your career?
Varun: I found out about AFI through a director friend who had applied to film schools a year before I did. At that stage, I had taught myself the basics of editing through four years of micro-budget indie filmmaking and felt that the learn-by-doing Conservatory approach was best for how I learn.
My AFI experience turned out to be a lot better than I could have ever expected, and I hold a couple of lessons very close to my heart. The first was from Phil Linson, who was then the head of the Editing discipline. At my first-year review, he said, “I want you to focus on what the footage IS, and not what you want it to be.” This might be painfully obvious to experienced editors – but for me at that stage, with my editing and producing background, he really unlocked something in my mind on setting aside my expectations of the film and truly seeing it for what’s in the footage and how I could make the best of it. Second, was learning to give and receive creative feedback at different stages of the film, how to be constructive and how not to take notes personally. Working in this industry, especially as an editor, your day is filled with creative notes – and you have to constantly present, negotiate and mediate creative decisions under tight deadlines with highly opinionated people. The rigors of editing workshops, director’s presentations, narrative workshops, focus group screenings and many other classes at AFI really helped me structure my communication better as I started my adventure in the film industry.
AFI: What advice would you give to young film editors at the Conservatory or are there things you wish you had known about editing or the industry itself earlier on?
Varun: There’s always something to learn from every job, even if it isn’t the one you want to pursue long term. Early in my career, I was taking whatever job I could get – in many formats and genres that I wasn’t sure about pursuing – but I made sure I picked up as many lessons as I could along the way. I first learned how to churn out a fixed amount of work on a daily basis while editing at a YouTube channel, discovered every trick I know about editing project organization from being an assistant editor on reality TV, acquired intense sound design skills from a horror show, gained music editing skills from a teen drama and picked up VFX workflows from an action movie. I didn’t end up climbing up the ladder on any of these paths, but those skills are invaluable to me today in any job I’m on.
And be patient – yes, there are a few breakout filmmakers who see huge successes very quickly, but there are plenty of extremely prolific filmmakers who have built their body of work patiently and steadily over years and decades. Be ready for the long haul. Keep in touch with your peers, teachers and fellow alumni. I won’t claim to be the best at this, but I will say that I can trace most of my jobs back to an AFI alum, faculty or classmate connection.