I just completed a semester teaching film
editing at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and I loved it.I spent everyday with students of cinema
whose enthusiasm was unbridled.I
revisited movies that inspired me when I was their age: THE GRAND ILLUSION, LA
STRADA, BREATHLESS, THE GRADUATE, BONNIE AND CLYDE, and THE GODFATHER, to name
a few. And I shared anecdotes and assigned published interviews with amazing editors --
all in order to pass along my beloved craft!
There’s no better place to do that
nowadays than a university or conservatory. It was differentwhen
motion pictures were edited on celluloid – run through clacking Moviolas or
humming Kems and Steenbecks, spliced together with scotch tape.There was a real master/apprentice system in
cutting rooms, with assistant editors learning their craft directly from
editors and directors. But that arrangement has changed.
I started in feature post-production in the late seventies, a key part of the
assistant editor’s job was to find pieces of film for the director and
editor.Working on MANHATTAN, as Woody
Allen and Sandy Morse repeatedly viewed Dianne Keaton’s close-up and the
subsequent shot of Michael Murphy, for example, I’d head to a box containing
the tail of Keaton’s shot, then to one containing the head of Murphy’s. As scrutiny
continued, I’d roll down to the actual frames that might be needed. If I did my
job well, I’d have the correct piece in Sandy’s hand as soon as she asked for
it.Of course, such efficiency would
have been impossible if I hadn’t been in the room listening. So I began to learn the craft of editing --
why to trim a given shot or extend another, why to restructure a section of the
movie, delete a whole scene, or be wide instead of close -- by eavesdropping.
But in the mid-nineties, digital systems
eliminated finding pieces of film as an assistant editing task.Now the editor presses a computer key when
she and the director need to extend or change a shot; as a rule, the assistant
works on sound and visual effects or organizational assignments in a separate
space. Thus classrooms, not cutting rooms, have become the best venues for
teaching our craft. We try to involve assistants in the process by discussing
our cutting choices at the end of each workday or when we turn scenes over to
them for temporary sound effects editing. But these brief chats are no substitute for
the fulltime immersion of yesteryear.
was exciting, then, to share the invisible art at North Carolina’s prestigious film
conservatory. I began by teaching the fundamentals of cutting I learned so long
ago when, filled with misconceptions, I found myself retrieving pieces of
celluloid for editors and directors. Back then I believed, as most lay people
do, that the primary goal of editing was to fix mistakes. It isn’t.As I told my students, the more essential (and
more exciting) task is to make sure great moments wind up in the finished film.
Forget perfect match cuts.Forget
anything but allowing yourself to be moved by the best material, then figuring
out how to use it.
We read an interview with Thom Rolfe,
co-editor (with Marcia Lucas) of TAXI DRIVER. In it, Rolfe talks about Robert DeNiro’s iconic
“You talkin’ to me?” monologue. When the editor viewed dailies, DeNiro’s
performance blew him away, but the scene’s lack of coverage – of other angles
to cut to – seemed problematic.Yet Rolfe
couldn’t not use the actor’s
brilliant work.So use it he did!And, to this day, I’ve never heard anyone
complain about the way this brilliant scene is put together.
The TAXI DRIVER monologue provided a
perfect segue to classes I taught on the primacy of performance itself.Before I actually worked in the industry, I’d
read theoretical writings on editing by filmmaking pioneers Eisenstein and
Pudovkin, and I knew that movies with great chase sequences won Academy Awards.
Thus I came to the craft thinking it was, first and foremost, about picking
shots that would produce some sort of cool effect when juxtaposed. That’s why I
was surprised, on my first feature film, to see Woody Allen and Sandy Morse
invariably consider performance above
all else when selecting takes.
In class, I explored such issues as
emotional complexity and authenticity – keys to performance selection - using interviews
with film editors Dede Allen, Anne Coates and Sidney Levin.I screened clips of awe-inspiring work by Marlon
Brando and Vivienne Leigh, Al Pacino and John Cazale, and Anthony Quinn and Giulietta
Masina.We even discussed photos and
paintings of great, expressive faces.I
taught what I had learned in cutting rooms:when constructing a movie’s first assembly, great acting trumps great
camera movement, great composition…
Once I’d gotten across the idea that excellent
performance is the most important criterion when selecting takes for a first
cut, I pulled the rug out from under my students by telling them that after the first assembly of a motion picture,
its pace might become even more important than what the actors are doing.I assigned an interview with Dede Allen about
Robert Rossen’s THE HUSTLER, in which the legendary editor talked about how
painful it was to lift one of Paul Newman’s best moments from the film. The
deletion was necessary because THE HUSTLER’s audience had already garnered the
scene’s information from an earlier bit that couldn’t be removed; Dede and her director discovered the movie was
more engaging when it ceased to be redundant; the audience would never miss a
performance of which it was unaware.
And I talked about similar experiences of
my own: as an assistant, I watched Sandy Morse and Woody Allen eliminate an
entire character from STARDUST MEMORIES because the film as a whole had already
said everything the additional character might.Years later, Josh Radnor
and I also removed a character’s plotline – one that seemed important in the
script but not in the rough cut - while working on his movie, LIBERAL ARTS.
There were so many delights in sharing the
craft of editing: talking about uses of sound effects and music, about the
difference between pace and rhythm, about intentionally breaking hard and fast rules… And
I got to work with extremely capable
student editors on their senior films and advise others on independent projects.
I brought Editor’s Guild and ACE president Alan Heim to campus, where he screened
ALL THAT JAZZ for an ecstatic crowd, and watched students mature right before
my eyes as he worked with them one-on-one. I had the privilege of teaching
alongside brilliant and dedicated editing colleagues and pedagogues from all
filmmaking crafts and areas of cinema studies.
Most surprising to me, though, was the
realization that teaching makes me a better editor. Having to articulate what I
know and how I know it enables me to focus more sharply. And at times, it helps
me come up with creative solutions to cutting problems more quickly.
Other editors tell me they’ve had similar
experiences.David Bondelevich, film professor
at University of Colorado Denver and past president of Motion Picture Sound
Editors (MPSE) and Cinema Audio Society (CAS), shared this quote: “To teach is
to learn twice.” (Joseph Joubert). David sees his need to state complicated
ideas in simple terms as an exercise that has enhanced his craftsmanship.
Norman Hollyn, ACE, esteemed author,
editor and professor of cinematic arts at University of Southern California,
agrees, and adds that he learns from those he’s instructing. “Questions that
our good students ask,” he says, “help me to question my built-in assumptions
about editing, open me up to other forms, and (perhaps most importantly) teach
me how to better question myself.”
Norm’s insight resonates deeply for me. It
captures not just how dazzled I was when a student showed me her favorite K-pop
videos – the first I’d ever seen - or when she and other students showed me
truly original work.It also reminds me
of what a living, breathing entity the student/teacher relationship is, and how,
consequently, filmmaking itself continues to evolve and inspire!
Malina, co-founder of The Living Theatre, died on April 10th at 88 years
of age.I had the privilege of meeting
her about seven years earlier, while renting an apartment on New York’s Clinton
Street, a few doors from the company’s performance space.On my way home one night, I asked a troupe-member
on a smoking break if Ms. Malina was still active.Yes, he said, she was directing their
upcoming play about Edgar Allan Poe.
I told him how deeply her work had affected me long before I ever thought about
working in the arts, he suggested I come inside to meet her.She was gracious, grand and generous,
ultimately inviting me to watch rehearsals whenever I liked.
Sitting in on that process was eye opening
for me because Ms. Malina’s brand of theatre was designed to seem spontaneous
and unrehearsed.Yet to make the play feel
as alive and in-the-moment as she wanted it to - to allow for alterations in tone
as audience responses varied from night to night - the core of the piece had to
be crystal clear to actors and rehearsed with rigor and precision.
Decades ago, when Judith Malina and her
husband, Julian Beck, made their biggest waves, a term like “spontaneity” would
have been too tame for them; “revolutionary” was more appropriate.Mr. Beck, Ms.Malina and their troupe were pioneers
in exploding conventions as basic as the imaginary fourth wall between
spectators and performers.As basic as
actors wearing costumes.
That’s right, costumes!The first time I saw Judith Malina, at the
Brooklyn Academy of Music in a 1968 performance of Paradise Now, she was stark naked.Naked and challenging onlookers with the chant, “To be free is to be
The production sent shock waves through
all of pop culture.Jim Morrison’s arrest for indecent exposure onstage
in Florida came shortly after he’d seen Paradise
Now. Ms. Malina and Mr. Beck were
A sequence in Brian DePalma’s 1970 film HI
MOM, known as “Be Black, Baby,” depicts an underground theatre performance in
which bourgeois white patrons are brutalized by an acting troupe and love
it.DePalma’s brilliant faux cinema verite set piece ends with an
audience member declaring, “Clive Barnes was right!”Mr. Barnes, a New York Times reviewer, was
indeed an early supporter of Ms. Malina and Mr. Beck’s work.
Spurred by such critical support and a
modicum of commercial success, other theatre companies engaging in radical experimentation
began to reach wider audiences.Richard
Schechner’s Performance Group on New York’s Wooster Street triumphantly staged Dionysus in 69, a confrontational
approach to classical characters comparable to The Living Theatre’s Antigone. The San Francisco Mime Troupe
travelled the country with innovative outdoor productions of Brecht.And Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Lab Theatre
toured the U.S. with its aim of “encountering the spectator – intimately,
directly, not hiding behind… wardrobe mistresses, stage designers or make-up
But Judith Malina’s late sixties success hardly overnight; The Living Theatre was founded in 1947. At that time,
its focus was not on the fourth wall, but on dramatic language.Conventional playwrights simply didn’t capture
Ms. Malina’s vision of how to awaken audiences from their somnolence. So the
company staged productions by Jean Cocteau, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Pablo
Picasso and William Carlos Williams, among other non-traditional playwrights.
Later, they took on gritty subject matter
with dramas like Jack Gelber’s The
Connection (1959) – about heroin addicts - andKenneth H. Brown’s The Brig
(1963) – about a Marine prison.Both
were adapted into powerful films, the former by Shirley Clark in 1961, the
latter by Jonas Mekas in 1964.Mr. Mekas’s
made his movie to preserve Ms. Malina’s Obie Award-winning production after the
IRS shut down the company’s West Village space.His cinema verite-style
filmmaking and the company’s acting were so intense that, according to critic
Jonathan Rosenbaum, European viewers thought they were watching a documentary.
Meanwhile, The Living Theatre’s tax
problem afforded Judith Malina an opportunity to merge life and art.Dressed as Portia from The Merchant of Venice, she defended Julian Beck at his tax evasion
hearing. But her performance was not
successful, at least from a legal standpoint.
So The Living Theatre spent the next few
years touring Europe, developing ever more radical form and content for their
work, returning to the U.S. in 1969 with bold productions of Frankenstein, Antigone and the infamous Paradise
Now. Like novelist/activist Emmett
Grogan (Ringolevio), they were reborn
during their decade of self-exile on the continent.
The fertile ground of 1960’s popular
culture, however, proved to be exceptional.After the company’s 1968 tour, The Living Theatre remained intact and
innovative, but their cage rattling took place on the fringes.And in 1975, Judith Malina made an
unforgettable foray into the mainstream, playing Sonny’s (Al Pacino’s) mother
in DOG DAY AFTERNOON.
According to director Sydney Lumet,
casting Ms. Malina was Mr. Pacino’s idea. And it paid off in spades, much as
casting Lee Strasberg as THE GODFATHER PART II’s Hyman Roth had.
Director Milton Ginsberg pointed out to me
how generous and courageous it was for Mr. Strasberg to take the part:his reputation as a groundbreaking acting
teacher on a par even with Stanislavsky was secure regardless, but anything
less than greatness in Francis Coppola’s film might have tarnished him.The same was true for Ms. Malina. Her
achievements in avant-garde theatre were legendary, and run-of-the-mill work in
DOG DAY would have disappointed her admirers, myself included, and potentially
diminished her stature.But what she
delivered was awe-inspiring.
During the time I spent with The Living
Theatre in 2008 a company member shared a story about Al Pacino’s ongoing
support of its co-founder. When Julian Beck died in 1985, the multiple Academy Award-winning
actor paid for the funeral and burial, asking in return only that no one
mention his generosity to the press.
Ms. Malina couldn’t afford to pay herself;
avant-garde theatre simply doesn’t make money.When she appeared in DOG DAY AFTERNOON, in fact, the production had to
cover her bus fare to New York from the Vermont commune on which she lived.And in 2013, even with considerable contributions
from Al Pacino and Yoko Ono, The Living Theatre was forced to close its Clinton
The theatre shut its doors for good, and Judith
Malina went to live in the Lillian Booth Home for Retired Artists.She’d had a 66-year run.Not bad!
I write this piece, I reflect on how her life and work connect to filmmaking.Of course, there are the movies themselves –
THE CONNECTION, THE BRIG, DOG DAY AFTERNOON (along with ENEMIES: A LOVE STORY,
THE ADDAMS FAMILY, AWAKENINGS, LOOKING FOR RICHARD and even an episode of THE
SOPRANOS).There are the motion pictures
she influenced: HI MOM, THE DOORS and others.And there’s the age-old bond between theatre and cinema per se.
But Judith Malina’s strongest link to
making movies is that her uncompromising nature and her vision continue to
inspire all of us who got to see her work.She dared to be bold and authentic to a degree most of us forget we can.Her legacy makes us aim higher.
Kenneth Branagh’s CINDERELLA is
delightful.Shots of geese early in the
movie foreshadow the role one such creature will play in getting our
long-suffering heroine to and from the ball.But the imagery also suggests that Mr. Branagh’s film is going to be silly.Unashamedly sentimental and melodramatic,
never above slapstick to get a laugh, it is, after all, for the kids.
Yet the movie is clearly stamped with the
mark of its auteur.When Ella is first smitten by the prince she
mistakes for an apprentice, the director has her sing a ditty from Shakespeare’s
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. During a stag
hunt, Mr. Branagh uses tracking shots that recall the Battle of Agincourt in
his glorious production of HENRY V.And
that film’s “chorus,” Derek Jacobi, plays the king in CINDERELLA, here to
assure viewers that performances will be as well-honed as they are in all
Kenneth Branagh films.
Thus what might have been an insufferable
iteration of an old Disney franchise is, instead, exciting cinema – so exciting
it brings to mind Ingmar Bergman’s THE MAGIC FLUTE. The usually brooding Swedish director opened his movie with shots of his awestruck
daughter listening to Mozart’s buoyant overture; the opera, of course, is also
“for the kids.” And Bergman’s filmmaking, like Branagh’s in CINDERELLA, was as
masterful as it had ever been.Excellent
craftsmanship is apparent in the pace achieved by longtime Bergman editor, Siv
Lundgren, and in the exquisite cinematography of the director’s erstwhile
partner-in-film, Sven Nykvist.
Collaborating with the same talented
people from picture to picture is always a boon to filmmakers. Its value is evident in Bergman’s teamwork, as
it is in Fellini’s partnerships with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and
composer Nino Rota, Hitchcock’s associations with cutter George Tomasini and
composer Bernard Herrmann and Woody Allen’s long runs with designer Santo
Loquasto and editors Susan Morse and Alisa Lepselter.Over the years, from movie to movie,
directors and their teams develop a shorthand communication that makes the work
easier and better.
The list of similar such collaborations is
endless, and surely includes – to come back to CINDERELLA – Kenneth Branagh’s work
with composer Patrick Doyle. Mr. Doyle’s
contribution to the Disney fairy tale is as enormous as it was to HENRY V.In that picture, his music enhanced the
Peckinpah-like ferocity of the Battle of Agincourt as well as it
underlined the deep emotions of Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech.In addition the music unified the movie’s many
Mr. Doyle’s scores are an integral part
not only of Mr. Branagh’s Shakespeare films (including HAMLET, MUCH ADO, TWELFTH
NIGHT and AS YOU LIKE IT along with HENRY V), they lift spectacles like THOR,
MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN and CINDERELLA high above mere commercial fare.(Although Mr. Branagh’s LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST
is one of my cherished guilty pleasures, it’s not completely successful, in part because its soundtrack consists
primarily of old standards; Patrick Doyle wrote only incidental music for the
The emotional colors of CINDERELLA, like
those of HENRY V, are, indeed, diverse.While at times the movie is “as silly as a goose,” it’s also infused
with the sadness of loss, the melancholy of class distinctions and the romance
of young lovers so smitten they ignore the rigid rules of social
heart-quickening tension of deep and magical secrets almost exposed, there’s
vengefulness and forgiveness.There’s
the suggestion that all will end badly (even though we know it won’t), there’s
the giddily happy ending.And all are
woven into a coherent whole by Patrick Doyle’s rich symphonic underscore.
Many CINDERELLA viewers, like myself,
found themselves welling up from beginning to end.That, too, is a result of the composer’s
rich, melodic music.Of course the score
is manipulative.But the reason we watch
a fairy tale, in the end, is to have
our emotions played with.
And after the final cathartic cry, Mssrs.
Branagh and Doyle bestow a little gift upon those who sit through CINDERELLA’s
tail credits.As the titles roll on, Mr.
Doyle’s original music ends and his arrangement of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” (from the animated 1950
Disney feature), now sung by Helena Bonham-Carter, takes over the soundtrack. Also
known as “The Magic Song,” “Bibbid-Bobbidi-Boo” is the perfect coda to the
magical experience of Mr. Branagh’s movie.
I left CINDERELLA thinking I’d just heard
a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score next February.When Wes Anderson’s THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
was released this time last year its brilliant balalaika music by Alexandre
Desplat made me feel the same way.M.
Deplat’s soundtrack was brilliant, but I wondered if the Academy’s music branch
and its general membership would remember it eleven months down the road.They did and GRAND BUDAPEST’s composer picked
up the coveted trophy.I won’t be
surprised if Patrick Doyle does the same for CINDERELLA.
Working on set and in cutting rooms, sadly, leaves little time for blogging. So it’s been a long time since I’ve posted here. But I had so much fun talking about movie music on my good friend Lauren Fay’s UCLA radio show “Lost and Sound” that I want to write about it.
First, live radio goes by at amazing speed. Although I knew which pieces we’d play and had a sense of what we’d talk about, there were times when I felt like a little league kid facing a pro fastball pitcher. Asked about my work on SOUL PLANE, for example, I responded as though I’d been asked about I’M GONNA GIT U SUCKA! Then the moment was gone, the ball already past me, in the catcher’s mitt.
Teeing up Miles Davis’ brilliant score for Louis Malle’s ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS, I implied that Miles hadn’t been classically trained. He’d studied at Julliard, of course, but there was no taking back the “swing and a miss.” Earlier, I’d left the impression that INFINITELY POLAR BEAR, deftly scored by composer Theodore Shapiro, contained only songs on its soundtrack. And as the show sped on I heard the ump growl, “Stee-ri-i-ke!”
Omissions continued. I never pointed out the fact that two of our clips featured sound design by the great Wylie Stateman. I wanted to discuss what music supervisors do – supervisor extraodinaire Randall Poster’s work was behind four of the pieces we played -- but the subject never came up.
All that said, however, I was relaxed… and light years away from my first radio gig, during which WBAI host and brilliant essayist Lenny Lopate reminded me, as I answered a yes-or-no question, “Our audience can’t see you nod your head.”
I’ve always loved radio and I’m excited that young music aficionados like Lauren Fay embrace it, too. Watching Martin Scorsese’s delightful documentary, BRINGIN’ IT ALL BACK HOME, we learn that Bob Dylan fell in love with music on stations thousands of miles from his Minnesota home while listening to his crystal set every night. Whole generations of musicians and filmmakers discovered songs in similar ways. And here in 2015, on “Lost and Sound,” Lauren shares her passions: Afro-Cuban records, “devil music,” local indie bands and, yes, movie soundtracks, with listeners for whom such sounds are all brand new.
Perhaps I’m also fond of radio because, like film, it’s becoming rarefied. Digitally recorded, digitally streamed music selected by Silicon Valley software is radically different from vinyl picked by impassioned disc jockeys, but it’s here to stay. Likewise, digitally recorded motion pictures digitally projected or streamed on telephones don’t have the magic of light shone through celluloid onto giant silver screens.
But I also appreciate that live radio is quite different from cinema. Making a movie, we shoot take after take after take, for weeks on end, until we have the best combination of performance and camera work for every beat of every scene. We then spend months in the editing room, selecting, refining and rearranging these moments, and many more weeks creating and mixing the sound and music, tweaking visual effects and adjusting the color. So it takes about a year to make a typical two-hour movie. A one-hour radio show requires an hour of studio time.
Which brings me back to things I omitted and errors I committed as the clock ticked away. SOUL PLANE, which Lauren asked about in vain, was quite a trip from a musical standpoint. Working with RZA on the score, with performances by Method Man, Snoop Dogg and Little John in the film, and with songs by 50 Cent, Nelly and Styles on the soundtrack, exposed me to a kind of music I hadn’t known well, but which was perfect for the picture. Another vibrant color on the palette, another important tool in the kit!
All those tracks, of course, had to be wrangled - pieces tried for this scene or that, some rejected, some fitting perfectly. Clearances were obtained and deals made with artists, publishers and labels. Director Jessy Terrero and I needed suggestions for temp score, and alternatives to cuts that were too expensive. We were lucky to have -- you guessed it -- a great music supervisor. Melody London and I had worked together on several films, and on this one she knocked it out of the park.
I also mentioned supervisor Randall Poster, with whom I’ve worked a few times. He was supervisor on GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, for which composer Alexander Desplat just won an Academy Award for Best Score. I remember an amazed Randy calling from a scoring stage in Romania filled entirely with balalaika players, an ensemble I suspect he had a hand in a putting together for that picture. He currently supervises the Amazon series MOZART IN THE JUNGLE and worked on GOODFELLAS, PULP FICTION, JACKIE BROWN and INFINITELY POLAR BEAR – movies from which I played records on “Lost and Sound.”
I could go on about what we didn’t explore on the show: the joy of working with Leonard Feather on the jazz tracks (and James Horner on the score) for SWING KIDS; the privileged moments, while working with Jerry Goldsmith on MEDICINE MAN, of chatting with the maestro about his writing 40 minutes of music a week for PLAYHOUSE 90 and conducting it live; the sense of musical adventure in every Martin Scorsese soundtrack, from the RAGING BULL’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” to THE COLOR OF MONEY’s “Werewolves of London” and beyond. I wish we’d had time to mine the gold of music documentaries.
But take a listen to what we did do on the show. In one hour, we presented a pretty exciting playlist that included a couple of Bernard Herrmann pieces, one by Miles Davis, and songs by Brenton Woods, The Chips, Townes Van Zandt, The Delfonics, Chuck Berry, The Fugs and, my own favorite, Rabbi Marshak from Joel and Ethan Coen’s A SERIOUS MAN.
WEEKEND, directed by Tom Dolby and Tom Williams from a screenplay by Mr. Dolby,
will have its world premiere on May 2nd at the San Francisco
International Film Festival. It tells the tale of a mother (played stunningly
by Patricia Clarkson) who, in the course of an eventful Labor Day weekend,
comes to terms with the fact that she no longer plays a central role in the
lives of her grown sons. I’m proud to
have been the film’s supervising editor.
my first meeting with Tom and Tom -- my job interview -- the directors said the
tone of the piece was meant to be Chekhovian. Specifically, Tom Dolby’s story
about a gathering of kith and kin at a family estate soon to go on the selling
block evoked The Cherry Orchard.On the title page of Anton Chekhov’s text,
the playwright tells us his piece is “A Comedy in Four Acts.”Famously, Stanislavski directed its first
production, at the Moscow Art Theatre, as a tragedy.The challenge in editing, then, would be to
keep both humor and pathos alive while still endowing LAST WEEKEND with a
stylistic and emotional unity.
And indeed, the narrative unfolds with a
comfortable mixture of comedy and drama.Combining levity and gravitas, of course, heightens an audience’s
experience of each.I was reminded of
this artful dynamica few months ago after a
screening of Brian Percival’s THE BOOK THIEF.Lead actor Geoffrey Rush arrived at the end of the movie for a question
and answer session and asked, “Did we get the laughs?”While that might seem like an odd query about
a sad story set in Nazi Germany, it was an important one for Mr. Rush.“If we don’t get the laughs,” he explained,
“we don’t maximize the tears.”He’s
right; emotional extremes keep the viewer’s guard down.
The Toms, as cast and crew came to call
them, understood this from the start.So
my interview became a work session.The
directors’ vision -- the one to which an editor tries to remain true as a picture
evolves -- was laid out. Comedy and drama were to play equal roles as LAST
WEEKEND’s story unfolded; to succeed, the film had to maintain a delicate tonal
It may surprise non-editors to learn that
thematic and emotional values are what directors and editors talk about from
the get-go.But really, what else is
there to discuss?Nothing has been shot,
so cutting rhythms and patterns are random abstractions at this point.
There’s no reason for an editor talk to a
director about the software she or he will use at a first meeting… or
ever.No matter how exciting editing
students might find such a chat, discussing Avid or Adobe with a contemporary director would be as
meaningless as telling Hawks, Hitchcock or Wilder what kind of splicer
the cutter might use.
So, the screenplay is the focal point of
the job interview.The director’s
interpretation is paramount, to be sure, but the editor’s impressions are also quite important.And Tom and Tom wanted to hear about mine.I could see the Chekhovian nature of the
writing, I told them.But it also
evoked, for me, the feel of George Cukor’s THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.In that film, Jimmy Stewart’s character,
Macaulay Conner, says more than once, “With the rich and mighty, always a
It’s not that Tom Dolby’s script defends
oligarchy; it absolutely doesn’t. But
the film does show affluent characters to be multi-dimensional and deeply
human. And yet, unlike most contemporary Hollywood movies, LAST WEEKEND refuses
to shy away from dialogue about socio-economic class. In one amusing scene, the
family patriarch (Chris Mulkey) boasts that he’s not nouveau riche as are his “dot-com-er” neighbors. After all, you
see, his fortune (from a chain of workout gyms) is over two decades old!
I guess the Toms were comfortable with my
impressions and with the extent to which I understood and embraced their vision,
because we did wind up, happily, working together.But there’s also subtext to the initial director/editor
meeting – something beyond agreement about the substance of a script. Since directors and editors spend many
hours a day in the editing suite for months on end, the question, “Is this
someone I can abide in cramped quarters for a protracted period?” lies beneath
And the answer has little to do with
whether the editor wears the right perfume or cologne (or none) to a meeting,
or whether she or he likes indie bands, single malt scotches or the Dodgers.
(Those things might come up, as text, to be sure, but they’re relatively
unimportant.)Potential compatibility in
the cutting room is really determined by how prepared the editor seems to be,
how eager she or he is to hear what the directors have to say and by the
quality of ideas she or he brings to the table.
What’s more, it’s imperative that those
ideas relate to the directors’ vision.If I had suggested Tom and Tom that LAST WEEKEND needed additional one
liners to become more of a broad comedy I might have had a point, but not one
related to the Chekhovian film about families they set out to make and that,
together with my co-editor David Grey and the whole cast and crew, we succeeded
Recalling the successful meeting with the
Toms, along with the lessons one can learn from it, somehow makes me think of my very
first interview for an editing position – the exact opposite of my LAST WEEKEND
experience. The word “disaster” comes to mind. At the time I was just
graduating from assisting other cutters, and had a couple of editing credits on
“afterschool specials” under my belt.
I'd read Ralph Rosenblum’s anecdotal
feast, When The Shooting Stops (The
Cutting Begins) and found it inspiring in all the wrong ways.Don’t get me wrong.There’s much for filmmakers to glean from the
book -- indeed, Tom Dolby read and enjoyed it while we were editing LAST
WEEKEND –- but the author’s tone suggests that he singlehandedly “saved” almost
every picture on which he worked, including Woody Allen’s TAKE THE MONEY AND
RUN, ANNIE HALL and INTERIORS. Mr. Rosenblum's stories left
me with the impression that the trait directors admired most in an editor was
ruthless critical objectivity.
So I took the room by storm. I was smug,
superior and didactic – a real charmer -- telling the writer/director about all
the things, real and imagined, that were wrong with her screenplay.Her jaw and those of the producers dropped.They were speechless.As the silence became awkward and painful, I simply
filled it with more hot air, continuing to insult an artist who has since
received critical acclaim for her New Yorker short stories and other fiction. Not
my shining moment!
Indeed, I’ve come a long way. When
recommending When the Shooting Stops to Tom Dolby I did so with a caveat about
its tone. I’ve long known that the most important contribution an editor can make to a film is to help
shape it into the best version of what the directors envisioned in the first
place.And I’m confident that we did
that with LAST WEEKEND.
Michael R. Miller has had a dream career in film editing. After graduating from Cornell
University, he landed the plum job of assistant editor on Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN. He worked in the same capacity on Mr. Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES and on Martin Scorcese’s RAGING BULL. Subsequently Mr. Miller became a sound editor on Joel and Ethan Coen’s BLOOD SIMPLE, and went on to collaborate with "the boys" as picture editor of RAISING ARIZONA and
MILLER’S CROSSING. His many other cutting credits include Terry Zwygoff’s GHOST WORLD, Herbert Ross’ BOYS ON THE SIDE, Thomas Carter’s SWING KIDS, Rocky Morton and Annablel Jankel’s D.O.A., Keenan Wayans’ I’M GONNA GIT U, SUCKA,
Paul Dinello’s STRANGERS WITH CANDY, Michael Bay’s ARMAGEDDON, Rupert
Wainwright’s STIGMATA and Anthony Hopkins’ SLIPSTREAM. He also edited Josh Radnor’s HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE, winner of the 2010 Sundance Film
Festival Audience Award, Mr. Radnor's well-reviewed LIBERAL ARTS, which premiered at Sundance in 2012, and Maya Forbes' INFINITELY POLAR BEAR, which premiered at Sundance 2014 and will be released later this year by Sony Classics Pictures. Mr. Miller has also directed numerous music videos.