A Look into the Editing Process of Netflix’s The Crown, with Morten Højbjerg
The Crown is a historical drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Spanning 40 episodes, the show is a sweeping exploration of intertwining lives and buried histories. Season 4, episode 7, “The Hereditary Principle” portrays the emotional turmoil of Princess Margaret (played by Helena Bonham Carter) and her discovery of a family secret. Unique in the series, the episode stands alone as it shows the world through Princess Margaret’s eyes.
In our interview below, the episode’s editor Morten Højbjerg discusses the editing process, representing Princess Margaret in all her complexity, and the magic of acting. As the episode, like the series, deals with real people and their lives, dramatic portrayal must balance both faithfulness and a respect to those involved.
As Morten says, “everything comes from the characters. No matter if it’s action, comedy or drama. You try to understand the characters, the unique circumstance they are in. And you try to narrate them through the story… You basically just submerge yourself in the universe in front of you and let it speak to you.”
Morten Højbjerg is an award-winning editor working in film and television. His most notable work includes editing the “The Hereditary Principle” episode of Netflix’s The Crown, Amazon’s Hanna, and Lionsgate’s The Vanishing starring Gerard Butler.
He’s also collaborated with directors Lars Von Trier, Kristoffer Nyholm and Oscar winning director Susanne Bier. Other credits include All In; Susanne Bier’s After The Wedding, Trigonometry, and Top Boy; Danny Boyle’s Trust, and You Disappear.
Andrew Cheek: How did you get started working on The Crown?
Morten Højbjerg: Normally choosing your next project involves lots and lots of script reading. It can sometimes be a rather abstract process, as it can often be quite tricky to determine whether what you are reading will translate into a good piece. Especially when you are reading something entirely new. Something that does not exist yet. It depends on so many factors. Obviously it depends first of all on the story in hand, but things like budget, cast and schedule can sometimes play important roles as well when it comes to choosing.
With The Crown it’s a bit different. It stands on the shoulders of the previous seasons of the show, so in many ways it’s much easier to determine whether it’s something you can see yourself doing. And with The Crown there isn’t much of a question. I have admired the series from the very beginning, so to me it was an easy choice.
“The editing is where all the elements come together at last. If shooting is the art of the possible, editing is the art of bending the rules. Shaping and re-shaping. Asking questions and trying to find answers.”—Morten Højbjerg
The next step is to meet the director and the series producer. Personal relations are extremely important in filmmaking, so you need to start building on that as soon as possible. Filmmaking is a very collaborative kind of work.
And since the language of filmmaking and storytelling is all from the platform of human emotions and experiences, it is a very subjective language. So you need to synchronise to a certain degree in order to get the best out of everyone.
Andrew: For readers unfamiliar with this episode of the The Crown (4.7, “The Hereditary Principle”), could you briefly walk us through the general storyline and some of your intentions when editing?
Morten: The Hereditary Principle is very much about Princess Margaret. It deals with her fear of being left out of the inner circles of the family, of losing her sense of purpose. It basically deals with her fear of her own mind. In the episode she stumbles upon a family secret. Cousins from the royal family have been hidden away in a mental institution and even declared dead. Something she didn’t know about.
In real life these cousins ended up spending most of their life hidden away from the public eye and with very limited, if any, contact with their family. In a time where stigma was very present surrounding mental illness, they were deemed unfit for public life because of their mental disabilities.
In the editing of the episode we explore the themes of mental illness and belonging through the eyes and experiences of Princess Margaret. Intertwining her story and the story of the cousins.
Andrew: What were some of your primary responsibilities as editor (for “The Hereditary Principle”)? What did a typical day look like?
Morten: My overall responsibility as an editor is to tell the story at hand as well as possible. It sounds simple enough, but it involves a myriad of factors from plot to performances and from music to visual effects. The editing is where all the elements come together at last. If shooting is the art of the possible, editing is the art of bending the rules. Shaping and re-shaping. Asking questions and trying to find answers.
In my view, everything comes from the characters. No matter if it’s action, comedy or drama. You try to understand the characters, the unique circumstance they are in. And you try to narrate them through the story. A normal day looks like that. You basically just submerge yourself in the universe in front of you and let it speak to you.
Andrew: How might this episode’s presentation differ, or fall in line, with the rest of the 4th season?
Morten: This episode is in many ways a stand alone episode. It focuses on Princess Margaret and her world. It is not depending heavily on the episodes before or after, which provides a tremendous freedom in a sense. I had the luxury of treating it as a little feature film.
I think the cousins provide a nice mystery at the beginning of the episode. It takes a while before the audience gets all the pieces of the puzzle — in synchrony with Princess Margaret. And at first you are left to wonder how on earth this mental institution fits into The Crown. Hopefully it’s a nice sort of mystery.
Andrew: What were some of the ways you emphasized and explored Princess Margaret’s emotional turmoil and complexity on screen? To give the audience an experience from her point of view?
Morten: The entire episode was about keeping Princess Margaret front and centre at all times. Everything is experienced through her and we know what she knows—no more, no less. Throughout the episode we were experimenting a lot with sound to convey this idea that we’re inside her head, feeling what she is feeling.
For example, in the scene where she jumps in the pool and sort of stays there suspended under water for a little too long. In that scene we played a lot with sound. Distorting it and making it this surreal landscape of muffled voices and water. Lots of little things like that hopefully come together to create this strong sense that you are experiencing the episode through her eyes.
Andrew: How can you tell when you’re done editing?
Morten: Once I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with legendary editor Anne Coates who told me “you’re done editing when they take it away from you”. I think that’s very true. You can keep going, keep improving and tweaking. At a certain point the reality of release dates and things like that becomes very real factors, and you will have to hand it over.
In a way you get to be more and more of an expert on the material you have and the story you are telling. You can keep on getting new and profound revelations throughout the process, which is also why this job is so magical. It never gets boring and even though there are rules and formulas, every project is a dive into something unknown. As you get more experienced, you learn to trust the process and your own instincts. Sometimes you can almost feel like an instrument just playing the story really.
Andrew: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Morten: I just really feel like giving a shout out to the brilliant Helena Bonham Carter for the way she portrays Princess Margaret. Sometimes acting can be magic, and she is one of those actresses that are able to, in what seems almost like an effortless sort of dance, convey a complexity of emotion that is just incredible. With a precision that is just fantastic. She is definitely one of the most generous actors I have had the privilege to work with, and she certainly made my job a daily bliss.