Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston in the Breaking Bad season five episode "Gliding All Over"
Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston in the Breaking Bad season five episode "Gliding All Over"
Though she didn't dream of a career in television, Kelley Dixon, ACE, has edited some of the industry's recent classics. Her career secrets: Find a different way to get the job done, and don't be afraid to talk to everyone in the editing room.
Becoming an editor is a difficult career path, and Kelley appreciates those who mentored her along the way. She spent years working as an assistant editor before getting her break and says that helping up-and-coming editors get their foot in the door is her way of paying it forward. "My proudest career achievement so far, because I feel like I'm just getting started, has got to be my assistant moving up," she says.
Once she moved out of the assistant editor role, Kelley started racking up Emmy nominations. She is nominated this year for Outstanding Picture Editing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Her editing on Better Call Saul garnered her five Emmy nominations, and she was nominated four times for editing Breaking Bad, with a win in 2013.
Kelley also hosted and produced the Breaking Bad Insider and Better Call Saul Insider podcasts. In addition, she edits feature films, including 2022's Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Kelley was interviewed in June 2015 by Jenni Matz, director of The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
Q: Growing up, did you have an inkling that television was an area you wanted to work in?
A: Absolutely not. When I was a little kid, I never thought much about what I wanted to be. In high school, I thought I wanted to be an actor on stage, but I never thought about television or film. Then I saw a movie with Jackie Gleason and Tom Hanks called Nothing in Common, and Tom Hanks plays a creative director of an advertising team. I thought that was really neat, to work on a team and be creative. So I thought I wanted to be a copywriter.
Q: When you graduated from Colorado State did you move to L.A.?
A: I had family in Los Angeles. I said I wanted to be in advertising, and they're like, "There's opportunities out here," so I came out. I figured I'd try to get into an advertising mailroom, and that never happened.
Q: But you did still work in a mailroom.
A: Yeah, I worked in the mailroom at MGM/UA. My cousin knew the guy who ran the mailroom at MGM. She called in a favor, and luckily I got the job. My dream was to get on a studio lot, because those guys got to wear jeans or shorts and ride bicycles around and get to know everybody. I thought, "How fun would that be?" I had a six-month commitment, [but my stay] was shy by one week, because somebody who worked for one of the big TV execs knew somebody at thirtysomething who needed a PA.
Q: What were your job duties as a PA on thirtysomething?
A: Ride a bicycle around the lot, deliver stuff.
Q: Your dream.
A: It was. At thirtysomething we had two PAs who did everything. I got to know everybody. I started picking up the editorial paperwork from the script supervisor at seven in the morning and taking it up to the editors. Usually the script supervisor would do it himself, but I said I'd do it. I got to know the editors, and from there I started hanging out a lot in editorial. They were mentoring me. One of them was Victor Du Bois. At the time, they were working on the Ediflex. He showed me how to make cuts and started giving me scenes to cut. He couldn't give them to me for air, because that would violate the union contract, but he would give me stuff to practice, and he'd give me notes. And he kept saying, "Wow, you're really good." It was fun, and I learned a lot. The executive producers were some of the smartest that I've ever worked with: Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, and Scott Winant, who was a supervising producer at the time. All of them were instrumental in trying to get me into the union, making calls. Marshall and Ed had written a TV movie that Peter Horton ended up directing for the summer, and they did it nonunion. Victor Du Bois was going to cut it, and they asked if he would mind taking me on as an assistant so I could get the hundred days I needed to get into the union. That was my first assistant job.
Q: What, to you, makes a good editor?
A: What I am impressed by is when people do things that are unexpected but still organic to the process and to the picture. I like it when people take chances and do things that you're like, "Whoa, that totally makes sense, but that's not what I thought you would do." Ed Ornelas did a lot of that. [Kelley assisted him on Huff.] He would make the footage work for him. Victor Du Bois cut like that as well. I was always like, "I'm not that talented. I'm not going to be able to do that." What I found was I can do that, and I do think about things differently. Mentors have told me, "Wow, you have a different way of looking at these things, and you have a different style." I'm incredibly honored that they say that, and I want to believe them. I do take time and look at a lot of things. Something I've said in other interviews is, "Try to find a different way into the scene." There's always the obvious way, and maybe you'll use the obvious way. But always try to find a different way. It keeps you fresh. Breaking Bad is probably the most creative place I've ever worked, and they loved when you presented them with something they didn't expect.
Q: Lynne Willingham brought you onto Breaking Bad?
A: Yeah, Lynne had worked on The X-Files with Vince Gilligan. I had assisted Lynne on the miniseries Revelations. She was an incredibly nice person and the best teacher. She ended up taking me with her on Without a Trace, where I got to cut a lot. So, at one point, we had been on Without a Trace for about a season and a half. Lynne came in and closed the door, and we never worked with the door closed. She's like, "I got a pilot. It's by Vince Gilligan." I was so excited. And then she said, "Wait a minute. You might want to stay here, because they might move you up," and I'm like, "I would rather go with you and take my chances." I won the assistant lottery. I was just in the right place at the right time.
Q: Talk about the Breaking Bad pilot, because you actually did cut a few scenes.
A: I cut the drug-making montage and the scene where Walt has just raided his chemistry lab and brings over all the glass. Our intention when we went there was for me to be able to cut a lot more, because we knew it was an audition for me. With the montage, we hadn't talked to Vince and weren't sure what his musical ideas were. He was in Albuquerque. The script said something like, "Jump cut to some cool, hip music." Ed Ornelas had told me, "When I'm looking for new music, I go on MySpace" — that's dating myself — "and look at all the indie bands and just find something." That's what I did. Then I went to Lynne and I'm like, "I don't know how to make meth. What are the steps?" And she goes, "I think they shot it in order." So I cut that. When Vince came in, he saw it and his mouth was open. He was like, "This is great, don't change it at all." And I'm like, "Oh no, we can do better. This is just a start." "No, don't change a thing." Lynne told me later that she basically had to say to him, "Let her do this. There's a lot she can do, and it might get even better." That's when I started adding layers and running things backwards and all kinds of cool stuff.
Q: How did you move up to editor?
A: I can talk to people. I make friends easily. Vince Gilligan held the key to everything you'd ever want to know about The X-Files. So when we were just sitting around waiting for notes, I would constantly be asking him questions. Now it's kind of a joke. He's like, "Oh my God, you didn't shut up." But it gave me a rapport with him. Even assistants that I work with now, I'm like, "It's important for you to have a relationship with these above-the-line people in the room, because otherwise they don't know your name. Let them know who you are and engage them. Read the room. See if they're amenable to talking to you, and then you'll have a relationship. So when something comes up, they'll be like, 'Can we get so-and-so in here?'" I've been working like that for my whole career.
Q: So did you just straight-up ask Vince if you could be an editor?
A: Lynne was laying a lot of the groundwork. She would go to the bathroom, and I would sit down in the chair and say, "Hey, can I show you this?" No time was lost. We wanted him to get familiar with me doing the work. Producers and directors need to be comfortable with assistants. One morning, I came in and said to Lynne, "What do you think?" She goes, "I think you should go in there and talk to them." It was Vince Gilligan and producer Karen Moore. I went in and said, "Can I talk to you for a second?" "Sure, what's up?" "If the show gets picked up, I'd really like it if you considered me for second editor." They looked at me and then looked at each other and started laughing. And I'm like, "Are you laughing with me or at me?" And they're like, "No, we're laughing because we were just talking about this in the elevator." Vince said, "I think that would be a great idea. We like what you're doing, and we like your energy." The show got picked up. I had the job.
Q: You won an Emmy for the Breaking Bad episode "Gliding Over All." Tell us about accepting the award.
A: I don't do heels well. When we got in the theater, my feet were sliding in my shoes, and we were in Row W. I had these little fold-up flats in my purse that I intended to put on once the ceremony was over and we went to the ball. When we got in the theater, I said, "If I win, there's no way I'm going to be able to make it up there. I'm taking these heels off and putting my other shoes on." So I put the flats on. Then all of a sudden it was our category. Heidi Klum opens the envelope: "And the Emmy goes to ... Breaking Bad." There were two episodes nominated, mine and Skip Macdonald's, so it wasn't clear who won. And then she goes, "Gliding Over All." She didn't say "Kelley Dixon," but I'm like, "Gliding ... Oh! That's my show!" From there it was just a blur. I booked it to the stage. Heidi Klum gave me the statue and I went over to the mic and said, "I want to let you all know that I really did wear good shoes to this, but there was no way I was going to make it down here from Row W," and the room laughed. Then later all these other women were taking off their shoes and running up when they won. I guess I started a trend.
Q: What made you want to do the Breaking Bad podcast?
A: I was watching Lost, and I wanted to talk about it, but nobody around me had seen it, and I was bummed. It was the summer between season one and season two of Breaking Bad. I remember reading a couple of articles that talked about podcasts. So I started listening to a couple of Lost podcasts and realized that [Lost executive producers] Damon [Lindelof] and Carlton [Cuse] did one of their own. I think Marc Cherry was doing one for Desperate Housewives; Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers were doing one for Grey's Anatomy. When we went back for season two, I said to Vince, "We should do a podcast." He put it off, and sometime around February he was in my room editing, and I remember eating lunch and we were on schedule. So I said, "I'm going to set up some mics. Let's just talk about episode one for fifteen minutes." And once he started talking, just like me, he doesn't stop talking. It was great. Once we finished the first one, he's like, "This is way cool. We should do it for all of them. We can get the writers and actors in." And then it got big quickly.
Q: Other than the Emmy win, what would you say has been your proudest career achievement?
A: My proudest career achievement so far, because I feel like I'm just getting started, has got to be my assistant moving up. I'm working in a profession where it's hard as heck to move up. I really feel like editors need to take more of a stance in trying to get assistants to be cutting more for producers and directors.
Q: What kind of projects do you see yourself working on ten years from now?
A: I don't look that far in advance. What I'd really like to be is very high on people's short list. I can't necessarily envision the projects, but I'm hoping that I can be one of the first people that people want to call. Like, "What is Kelley Dixon doing?" "Kelley Dixon's busy, who do we call next?" I want to be a go-to. And I want to work with people who are into collaboration.
Q: What do you still love about editing?
A: Every once in a while, I'll come up with something and get excited. I know exactly what I'm going to do. Recently, working on a scene, I remember saying to myself, "This is when you remember that it's fun." Sometimes things are hard, sometimes shows are hard, sometimes politics are hard, or you're not working with the people that you want to work with. But you know what? It's the best job ever.
The contributing editor for Foundation Interviews is Adrienne Faillace.
Since 1997, the Television Academy Foundation has conducted over 900 one-of-a-kind, longform interviews with industry pioneers and changemakers across multiple professions. The Foundation invites you to make a gift to the Interviews Preservation Fund to help preserve this invaluable resource for generations to come. To learn more, please contact Amani Roland, chief advancement officer, at email@example.com or (818) 754-2829.
To see the entire interview, go to: TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #11, 2023.