In So Booking Cool’s continuing conversation, get to know Emmy-winning editor Nena Erb, ACE. The film and television professional, whose career spans beyond a decade, just earned a 2020 Emmy nomination for her work (alongside assistant editor Lynarion Hubbard) on the HBO series Insecure’s Lowkey Trying episode, directed by Kerry Washington. Erb discusses her foray into the industry; her favorite genre to work on; her thoughts on award shows; her advice for aspiring editors; the good and bad advice she’s received about her career; and more! 

So Booking Cool: As your bio states, growing up, you wanted to be Andy Warhol, and you later got your degree in art. What was it about art that you connected to? Is it the same connection that you feel today?

Nena Erb: Growing up, I loved photography, ceramics and printmaking.  I’ve always been someone who likes to create and these art forms were a method of self- expression. The connection remains today, the only difference is the format. Now I’m creating by telling stories with images, shaping stories, and experimenting by cutting different versions to find the most dynamic way to bring the story to life.

SBC: What led to your friend bringing you into the industry? How did you prepare?

NE: After graduating with an art degree, I had been commissioned to paint murals, had a few gallery showings but it was a struggle to pay the bills. A friend was working in the industry and she recommended me for a job in the art department. At that time, I hadn’t gotten into prepping for job interviews but things are quite different now. Now, I do a ton of research and I read the script multiple times before I meet with the producers.

SBC: Once you realized editing was the area of production in which you wanted to work in, what steps did you take afterwards?

NE: First thing I did was take classes to learn the software. The industry standard was and still is Avid Media Composer. Once I learned it, Sven Nilsson, the editor I had been working with when I was an associate producer, hired me as his assistant editor and I worked my way up. I’ve thanked Sven before but he probably doesn’t realize how much he’s changed my life.

SBC: As a well-versed film/TV editor, what is your favorite genre?

NE: My favorite is a blend of both comedy and drama. I don’t remember who wrote this but I once read that comedy is tragedy plus time and I feel that describes life perfectly. Also, when a project has more than one tone, it gives me a bigger palette to create with and I like that.  

SBC: Congratulations on your nomination for this year’s Emmy’s award for your episode of “Lowkey Trying” on Insecure, the episode directed by Kerry Washington. Can you recall the experience? What do you think about it has resonated so strongly with viewers?

NE: Kerry Washington was fantastic. She had unique ideas and the layers that she brought to her directing was incredible. I enjoyed looking for the symbolism that she infused into her composition and echoed them in the transitions that bridge each scene. When we were done screening the editor’s cut, she told me it was like I got into her brain. It was one of those rare collaborations where I got what she was envisioning. Kerry got such amazing performances and did a phenomenal job directing the episode. I think that’s why it’s resonated so strongly with viewers.

SBC: What are your thoughts on the 2020 Emmy nominations? 

NE: I think it’s refreshing to see so many new shows get recognition. Of course, it’s wonderful that Insecure received 8 nominations. I’m thrilled for every member of this incredible team.

SBC: Do you pay attention to the award show nominations and ceremonies? If so, did this start before you started working in entertainment or once it became your job/career?

NE: You never know what people will gravitate towards so I don’t think about awards when I sign on to do a project. Actually, I forgot the nominations were being announced until my phone started going crazy with texts and phone calls. It’s an incredible feeling to be recognized by a group of your peers but, at the end of the day, I’m the one who has to live with the dailies day in and day out for months. That’s why I’m more concerned with whether I connect with the content. Awards and accolades are a bonus.

SBC: Do you recommend that people who aspire to work in the industry should pay attention to trends and award shows? 

NE: I think aspiring filmmakers should read the trades, pay attention to the types of television shows or movies that are being made so they know what kind of content is trending. They should also pay attention to who the players are in the genre that they want to get into. Awards are once a year and many talented filmmakers go their entire career without being recognized. That’s why I think the focus should be on understanding who’s important and getting a grasp on how the industry works.

SBC: What has the experience been working on Little America, which has been so well received?

NE: I loved working on Little America because it’s an anthology so each episode was completely different from the next. As an artist, you had access to the entire palette and an array of brushes. You weren’t limited to just one color and one brush. This was also one of the biggest, most democratic and collaborative producing teams I’ve worked with in a long time. We had 9 executive producers and all of them were incredible. Lee Eisenberg wanted to have the process be similar to that of feature films where the director is involved until the end. 

They were open to hearing everyone’s ideas, experiment, and discuss concerns. Sian Heder, who directed The Silence was particularly supportive of experimentation. For me, the ability to take big swings without fear of failure was liberating.

SBC: How can an aspiring film editor get started?

NE: If you’re a recent graduate, I recommend applying for American Cinema Editors’ internship program. The internship gives you such an upper hand in getting into post-production.

If you’re working as a PA, be the best PA you can be. Anticipate people’s needs, get your work done well and get it done quickly so you can shadow the assistant editors. Learn as much as you can from them.

For assistants wanting to move up, cut as much as you can get your hands on. Cut short films on the side while working your day job and tell your editor you want to edit. Ask for scenes to cut or recaps to edit, practice your craft so you can be ready when the opportunity presents itself.

SBC: What draws you to projects in general?

NE: What draws me to projects are the stories and the creatives involved with the project. I was excited to join Insecure, not only because I love the show but, because I’ve been a fan of both Issa Rae and Prentice Penny’s work prior to Insecure. Collaborating with them on a show that I love has been a fantastic experience. 

SBC: Which have been the most unforgettable projects that you have been apart of? 

NE: There have been many but I’d say Little America was the most unforgettable because never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be working on a series about the immigrant experience. As an immigrant myself, it’s something I relate to on a personal level.

SBC: What’s the best piece of advice you were given about working in this industry? Did you take that advice? 

NE: The best advice I ever got was to not be afraid to take a risk. That’s always easier said than done but once I started taking a chance and waited for shows that I wanted to work on, I was able to shape my career in the direction I wanted to go in. In season 3 of Insecure, there was an episode where I took a chance and changed the way we use social media graphics in order to tell the story from Issa’s point of view, to put the viewer in her head.  It was a big risk to change something that had been an established element of the series but it paid off. The producers loved it, and I received an ACE Eddie nomination for my work on that episode.

SBC: What is the worst advice you got about working in the industry? What made it bad advice?

NE: To take the first job that’s offered even when the content doesn’t resonate with you. It’s not something I’d recommend because if you always take the first project offered, you may not like the direction that your career is heading in. Also, inevitably, something more interesting will present itself and you won’t be able to pursue it.

SBC: Like many parents, yours had their own ideas about what they wanted for your future. How have they come to feel about your award-winning career?

NE: It took a long time, but my dad finally came around. I think it was about a year after winning an Emmy. I was sending texts and photos from the award ceremony to family and friends. Everyone responded, except for my dad. I brushed it off and thought it was the typical dad thing where nothing impresses him. About a year later we were having lunch at a restaurant. My husband joked that he should come over and take a picture with the Emmy. There was a puzzled look on my dad’s face as he said “That’s real? I thought you were joking around.” Once he saw that it was a real Emmy, I think he exhaled and was finally able to see that he didn’t have to worry about me anymore. I was going to be okay.

-For more information visit Erb’s official website

Image credit: HBO and Merie W. Wallace

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