Insecure is a comedy-drama on HBO about best friends who deal with their own real-life flaws and insecurities while braving an often miserable everyday life and Emmy-winning editor Nena Erb is part of the magic behind the show.
Created by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore, Insecure is equal parts heart-warming, heart-wrenching, and edgy. It’s a show tackling an untapped source for stories: the African-American experience through the eyes of women. Through three seasons, the show has introduced episodes that defy convention. Take a look at the titles episodes, and you’ll get an idea. But watch episodes like “Obsessed-Like,” and you’ll get a sense of how bold this show can be.
PopAxiom talked with Nena Erb about the joy of being in a dark editing booth by yourself, making Insecure, Project Greenlight and the breaks along the way.
The first act for Nena started with art school but then “A friend brought me into the industry to work in the art department. It wasn’t quite right. I was used to doing fine art, and this was more architecture and set design.”
Now in the industry, Nena “… bounced around a little bit” which included work “… as a script supervisor …”
The most common suggestion for Nena was to become a director or editor “I knew I didn’t want to direct. I looked at the editing and thought ‘You’re sitting in a dark room all by yourself all day long? That doesn’t sound good either.”
The work continued and Nena “… kept experimenting and eventually got a job as an associate producer.” The new role meant “… actually working with editors” and that’s when Nena “… realized I knew nothing about editing.”
With new insight into editing Nena thought “It’s really amazing. This is where all the stories are put together, and you can shape where the story takes viewers. You have a lot of creative control in the storytelling process.”
It didn’t take long for Nena to become “… completely hooked.”
Breaks: Big & Small
Fifteen years later, here’s Nena, now an Emmy-winning, ACE-nominated editor. So, was there a big break? “There are so many little breaks … The one thing that changed my career the most was getting an Emmy. It opened doors for me to projects that I thought I couldn’t reach at the time.”
Some of those breaks happen — or don’t happen — based outside forces “I almost didn’t take Project Greenlight.”
Nena explains “I applied to the Salley Menke Fellowship, but I didn’t get accepted. So, I decided to do this little documentary show for HBO.” The show earned Nena an Emmy-award.
Back to talking about the ‘breaks,’ Nena adds “But there are always little breaks. So many people helped me along the way.”
Confident About Insecure
Nena entered Insecure in it’s third season where she earned an ACE-nomination for “Obsessed-like,” an episode that follows one character’s, well, obsession “I definitely experimented with that. It was a risky decision because it was my first season on the show.”
Nena reveals “I ended up cutting two versions. One that was very much the language of the series.”
The other cut turned out to be the episode that aired where Nena “kind of decided to change a few things.”
Typically, texts between characters are displayed on the screen, in a corner, allowing the image to play out while the audience reads “For “Obsessed-Like” because so much of the episode takes place in Issa’s head and her internal dialogue, I wanted to put the viewers in there with her.” The episode does some of that but also fills the screen with Issa’s obsession over a man who mysteriously cast her aside.
Does Nena ever think about the shots that don’t exist? “There’s always shots that you wish they would’ve gotten or like a different angle.”
But, surprisingly the award-winning editor doesn’t think much about those would-be shots “… what I love about editing is that you don’t know what’s going to come back. You have a good idea, but sometimes you get a scene, and it’s different from how it was scripted.”
However, Nena finds this part of the job “appealing,” and it’s for a simple reason “I loved puzzles growing up.”
From scripted comedy to comet-drama to reality or documentary “At the end of the day, it’s all about the story. People are expecting a sort of villain and a hero.”
The gig that Nena almost didn’t take turned into an Emmy award “My approach to Project Greenlight was really to show the process of filmmaking.”
Like anything, there is good reality television with footage stitched together to optimize manipulation, and then there is quality stuff like Project Greenlight “I didn’t want to manipulate situations. For me, it was explaining to the world ‘this is how a movie is done’ and still make it entertaining at the same time.”
Nena used to say, “Let’s make it Info-taining.”
In The Booth
At the end of the day, Nena missions “To get the kind of emotion that a story warrants.”
As a process that’s part puzzle, there are problems to solve and Nena admits “I dream about editing in my sleep. I fall asleep thinking about it, and I wake up saying ‘that’s how I can edit that scene!’”
How does music factor into her process of putting together a new project? “I like to cut dry. I like to make sure that the scene is working without music. Music is essential. But it’s amazing what you can see without the bells and whistles.”
If you’re watched Insecure, you’ll know just how integral music is for the show “Insecure use of music is so fantastic. Music is kind of its own character.”
Nena contrasts the use of music with another hit show she’s worked on My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend “Whereas in Crazy-Ex, aside from the musical numbers, the score is more background supporting the cast.”
Because I love to spread the love, we arrive at a familiar place for regular readers. Who or what inspires Nena creatively? “Anne Coates. She’s done so many amazing films over her career but the way she did Out of Sight, the way she reinterpreted the date.”
For Nena, Anne’s example showed “You can experiment and come up with something great. You don’t have to stick to a formula.”
Another personal inspiration for Nena is not an editor at all “Reese Witherspoon. I love what she stands for and that she’s a champion of women and that she has great taste. She picks amazing projects.”
What’s next for Nena? “I’m currently working on a [untitled] pilot created by Jessica Gao.” For you Rick and Morty fans, Gao was a writer for the animated series who wrote the Emmy-nominated episode “Pickle Rick.” Nena explains “…the show is about a Chinese-American woman who becomes the unwilling matriarch of a family she spent her entire life trying to keep at a distance.”
But that’s not all that’s coming soon from the art grad turned editor “After that, I’m working on Dream [working title] for Apple. It’s a series produced by Kumail Nanjiani and Alan Yang based on the true stories collection “Little America” featured in Epic Magazine.”
There’s more to come from Nena and the dark, lonely editing room she once thought was unappealing and now calls home.
Thanks to Nena Erb and Impact24 PR for making this interview possible.