Monday, January 31, 2011

A Blue Ribbon Panel

January 31, 2011

     Every year on the last Sunday in Janauary I wake up at an ungodly hour to eat bagels and drink coffee with colleagues before hunkering down and watching films to which we will award the Eddie, trophy of the American Cinema Editors.  Like SAG, the DGA and other motion picture craft organizations, A.C.E. (the editing honorary society) has an annual black tie awards dinner.  Weeks before that event and after the full membership has voted for best edited features, blue ribbon panels determine the best television movie, best feature-length documentary and other such honors.   Panelists watch nominees together, then cast secret ballots.  Yesterday, as I do annually, I donned my ribbon for the documentary group.

     Because I rarely edit “docs,” being on that panel gives me a chance to sit back and appreciate a skill set somewhat different from the one used by editors of dramatic fiction films.  It also enables me, usually, to see some excellent motion pictures that have had, at best, limited runs in a very small number of theatres.

     Docucumentary cutters don’t work with scripted material.  Consequently, they structure or even “write” their movies during post production to a far greater extend than their counterparts in the fiction feature world.  But that very fact -- that non-fiction editors select and shape 90 minute films from hundreds of hours of unscripted material -- speaks volumes about the nature of their work.  While it may be true that documentaries are a “window onto the world,” a window -- because of its frame, its thickness, its tint and any number of other factors -- mediates the reality seen through it.

     Historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote eloquently about such mediation in a television review published in1964 and reprinted in Lewis Jacobs’ anthology, The Documentary Tradition.  “...(T)he line between the documentary and the feature film is tenuous indeed,” he stated.  “Both are artifices; both are contrivances.  Both are created by editing and selection.  Both, wittingly or not, embody a viewpoint.  The fact that one eschews and the other employs professional actors becomes in the end an economic detail.  And the relation of any film to reality depends, not on the amateur standing of its elements, but on the artistic vision of those who must put the elements together.”

     This year’s nominees for the Best Documentary Eddie each displayed varying degrees of artifice and contrivance.  All three entailed massive amounts of selection.  And all three are radically different from one another.  

     “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a delightful film by Banksy, edited by Thom Fulford and Chris King.  It highlights Banksy’s own street art, along with the work of Mr. Brainwash (Thierry Guetta) and Shepherd Fairey, among others.  Like Orson Welles’ “F for Fake,” the movie intentionally makes viewers question whether or not what they’re watching is “real.”  Did Thierry Guetta really shoot thousands of hours of film without cataloguing (or even labeling) the cassettes?   Did he really sell photo-shopped photocopied Warhol knockoffs for hefty five figure sums?  If so, somewhere Andy is smiling... or talking to lawyers.  (And some great cinema verite artist is capturing all of it.)

     Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job,” edited by Chad Beck and Adam Bolt, selects material in the way a gifted attorney might when bulding a case for the prosecution.  The result is a searing indictment of bankers (and their enablers) whose machinations created the worldwide financial meltdown from which we continue to reel.  Some of Ferguson’s interviews are reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman’s work:  subjects smugly talk to camera about matters “too complex” for mere non-millionaires to comprehend.  Lobbyists, Columbia and Harvard faculty and administraters, and Goldman-Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein all bury themselves with their own comments, so out of touch are they with normal standards of ethical behavior.

     Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman,” on the other hand, is unabashed propaganda, attacking teachers unions and presenting charter schools as an educational panacea.  When Guggenheim isn’t busy selling Nikes or Minute Maid orange juice via “product placement,” he tries to sell the idea that the American Federation of Teachers wants job security for its members so that bad educators can continue to pick up unearned paychecks.  In his world, a great teacher in a right wing, fundamentallist school district would never be fired for teaching evolution, climate science or a balanced view of history.  No.  Guarantees of tenure are only for slothful enemies of learning.  

     What a world!  I guess it’s the same one in which a 2009 Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO)/ Stanford University study of charter schools doesn’t exist.  In that work, researchers discovered that 46% of charter schools showed no academic gains over traditional public schools, while 37% were actually outperformed by the public schools.  There’s not a word about CREDO’s findings in “Waiting for Superman.”  

     As the propaganda piece dragged on, I began to think of it as “Waiting for Bizarro Superman.”  I’m glad that, while recognizing the merit of “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and “Inside Job,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rightly ignored Davis Guggenheim’s union-bashing screed.

     Bizarro to the contrary notwithstanding, the American Cinema Editors get together was a great success.  A.C.E.’s Executive Director Jenni McCormick is, among other things, a perfect event planner.  And I enjoyed every second of chit chat with colleagues, including Steve Rivkin, Maysie Hoy and Anita Brandt Burgoyne.  

     On a sad note, however, I learned when I got home that film composer John Barry had died at the age of 77.  Mr. Barry will be missed.  His James Bond theme is as integral to the character as the “shaken, not stirred” martini.  His scores for “Born Free,” “The Lion in Winter,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Out of Africa,” “Dances With Wolves” and “Body Heat” (to name a few) forever changed the landscape of motion picture soundtracks and will continue to inspire and entertain.  Deepest condolences to John Barry’s family and friends.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


January 26, 2011

     Yesterday morning, after this year’s Oscar candidates were announced, Dennis Bartel of KUSC in L.A. played selections from the five pictures nominated for Best Original Score.  Broadcasting on 91.5 fm from the University of Southern California, KUSC is a cherished gift to the airwaves and the internet.  It’s not just that the station’s talented and knowledgable djs play the best classical recordings available.  They also play movie soundtracks on a regular basis.  Listening to Mr. Bartel, Alan Chapman, Kimberlea Daggy, Rich Capparela and the legendary, inimitable Jim Svejda (among others), one regularly hears scores by the likes of John Williams, the entire Newman family (Lionell, Alfred, Randy, Thomas and David), Danny Elfman, Bernard Herrmann, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner and many others.  What’s more, the station often plays non-movie music from these great composers.  Korngold’s violin concerto, Williams’ harp concerto and Herrmann’s cantata, “Moby Dick” (dedicated to Charles Ives), are among many pieces I’ve discovered while  listening to KUSC.  Find them, wherever you are, at  But beware:  Tuning in may be addictive.

Later on January 26, 2011

     While listening to an excerpt from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor’s score for “The Socail Network,” I had an epiphany related to an earlier post on this site.  Like so much else in David Fincher’s film, the score is inspired by Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.”  Famously, composer Bernard Herrmann used a 3-note motif throughout “Kane.”  Ross and Reznor, too, grounded “The Social Network’s” music in a 3-note ostinato ( a musical phrase repeated over and over throughout the composition).  Just a coincidence?  Maybe.

Still later on January 26, 2011.

     Condolences to the family of Stanley Frazen, former president of the A.C.E. and the Motion Picture Editor’s Guild, who died on January 23 at the age of 91.  Looking at a list of Mr. Frazen’s editing credits it’s hard to find one that isn’t a landmark in television history.  Among the shows he helped shape were:  “The Burns and Allen Show,” “The Jack Benny Show,” “My Favorite Martian,” “The Monkees,” “Get Smart,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Colombo” and “Charlie’s Angels.”  Wow!!

     Two of Stanley Franzen’s children, Nancy and Robert, are themselves film editors.  I got to know Robert a little when we were “neighbors” last summer at the Post Group.  It somehow seems fitting to me that the son of an editor of “The Monkees” wound up, decades later, doing a brilliant job cutting Charlie Kaufman’s ‘”Synechdoche, New York.”  Again, Rob, my thoughts and warm wishes are with you and the rest of your family.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscar Nominations

January 25, 2011

     Congratulations to the Academy Award nominees announced early this morning!  For  only the second time in the Academy’s history, ten films are eligible for a Best Picture Oscar.  The number of nominations in that category was doubled last year because network executives and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences governors believed that AMPAS members -- filmmakers -- had previously recognized excellence in films the movie-going public didn’t embrace.  Their feeling was that a larger group of people would watch the awards telecast if they had seen more of the pictures singled out by voters.  The more nominees, the higher the ratings.

     That’s not wrong, of course.  And each of the ten films named this morning is, indeed, excellent and Oscar-worthy.  But as an Academy member, I must point out that a chasm between our organization’s recognition of greatness and box office revenues has nothing to do with voters’ elitism, effeteness or aesthetic snobbery.  Most of us are very catholic in our love of movies.

     No.  The widening gulf between recognition by critics and award-givers, on one hand, and popularity, on the other, is a result of radical changes in film distribution and exhibition.  To succeed, a new release must perform exceedingly well at the box office in its opening weekend.  If it does so, it may remain in first run theatres for over a month.  A two month run is more or less unheard of.

     But such was not always the case.  I remember discovering “The French Connection,”  winner of five Academy Awards in 1972 (including Best Picture), six months into its run!  “Bonnie and Clyde,” another Best Picture winner, was rescued by Pauline Kael’s rave review after floundering at the box office for weeks.  Subsequently, it ran for months on end.  The winner of 1971’s Best Documentary Feature statue, “The Sorrow and The Pity,” played at New York’s Paris Theatre for years.  The run was so long, many of Gotham’s baby boomer movie buffs think it’s still  playing there.

     Extended exhibition of films, I know, is as likely to re-enter popular culture as manual typewriters or rotary phones.  So, too, with adaptation of best selling novels as a mainstay of Hollywood production:  it’s not coming back any time soon. 

     But it certainly was a mainstay.  Starting before “Gone With the Wind” in 1939 and reaching a pinnacle in the seventies with “Love Story,” “The Godfather,” “The Exorcist” and “Jaws,” studios made movies for a literate public.  The most widely attended pictures began with literary sources that appealed to Academy members and the public at the same time.  It’s hard to believe, in this era of  countless sequels and comic book-driven filmmaking, that novels by Peter Benchley and Mario Puzo (if not Margaret Mitchell) were seeds of the blockbuster as we know it.  Literary origin and popularity weren’t mutually exclusive. 

     Nonetheless, to reiterate, all ten of this year’s Best Picture nominees are deserving, to be sure.  It’s just ironic that excellence in filmmaking craft  continues to be recognized with only five nominees per category.  Of course, the already protracted Oscar broadcast would seem endless if presenters had to recite twice the number of names they’re called upon to read now. 

     That said, however, I wanted to hear quite a few names in this morning’s announcement that I didn't.  Mila Kunis, “you wuz robbed!”  Andy Garcia, if anyone had seen “City Island,” you’d have gotten much deserved official kudos.  And as for my erstwhile colleague, Coen brothers’ cutter and alter ego Roderick Jaynes, how can excellent performances or the film overall be recognized without a best editing nomination? 

     One of an editor’s primary tasks is performance construction.  Each angle of each scene is shot multiple times; there can be a dozen or more “takes” of every shot.  Editors, working side by side with directors, piece the best of them together seamlessly to create unified and moving performances by each actor.  And we can be obsessive, struggling to get even a mere word from one take into the final cut (if the utterance is extraordinary).  Thelma Schoonemaker and Martin Scorcese will work to get a syllable they like into the picture.                                                                        
     A few years ago, a generous and sensitive director called a colleague of mine on the day nominations were announced.  One of her picture’s performances had received a  best acting nod, but there was no Academy acknowledgement of superior film editing.  “That nomination was actually yours,” said the director. 

     There still seems to be a sense, even among film afficionados who parrot the truism that “films are made in the cutting room,” that an editor’s job is to delete gaffes.  Directors and editors know that our job is to refine and elevate the story we’re telling... to tell it in the best possible way.  In order to accomplish that goal, we mine hundreds of hours of film for gold  -- outstanding moments of performance, camera work... moments of true movie magic -- and we do whatever it takes to work them into the film gracefully.  So I can only assume that, had there been 10 best editing nominations, the editors of best picture nominees, “The Kids are Alright,” “Winter’s Bone, “Inception,” “Toy Story” and “True Grit” would have been named along with the equally deserving editors of “The Fighter,” “The Social Network,” “The King’s Speech,” “127 Hours” and “The Black Swan.” 


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Citizen Zuckerberg

     Last November, after three decades in feature film editing, I had the great pleasure of lecturing cinema students at  my alma mater, Cornell University.  Addressing under-graduates, I emphasized one basic idea:  Good movies are made by men and women who know and love their art form’s great works.  The best filmmakers have repeatedly watched the best pictures ever made; they’ve devoured and completely absorbed them.  

     I explained that my contribution as editor of Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Raising Arizona,” for instance, was enhanced by my dozens of viewings of screwball comedies such as “His Girl Friday” and “The Lady Eve.”  My endless, impassioned study of Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” and other movies about anti-heroes enabled me, while editing Terry Zwygoff’s “Ghost World,” to make the film’s prickly protagonists palatable. 

     The point -- that excellent filmmakers have great films in their DNA  -- might have been made, as well, by analyzing Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s “The Social Network.”   For its riveting story about the creator of Facebook is nothing less than a brilliant re-working of Orson Welles 1940 masterpiece, “Citizen Kane.” 

     Charles Foster Kane (fashioned by its writer/director after the real-life William Randolph Hearst) and Mark Zuckerberg (fashioned by Sorkin and Fincher after the real-life... well, Mark Zuckerberg) are both deeply flawed protagonists.  So, as storytellers, Welles and his contemporary counterparts had the same problem:  to keep viewers entertained and engaged by a repulsive central character.  And all three dealt with that conundrum in, essentially, the same way.  

     The films’ narratives unfold through the testimony of people whose lives were affected by their anti-heroes.  In “Kane,” a reporter seeking material for a newsreel obituary tracks down and interviews key players in the life of the newspaper baron.  In “The Social Network,” depositions in a lawsuit against Mr. Zuckerberg form the movie’s portrait of him.  And both pictures dramatize the words of interviewees (under oath or not) with flashbacks.

     Thus Welles’s most revered work and Sorkin & Fincher’s contemporary classic are really about their supporting players.  The 1940 film recounts how Jed Leland, Susan Alexander, Mr. Bernstein and Mr.Thatcher are dazzled and transformed by Charles Foster Kane.  Millionaire Kane may be a ruthless, egomaniacal sociopath, but he infuses so much vibrancy into the otherwise dull lives of those he exploits that his selfishness has a rosy tint.  Set against the fecklessness and malevolence of characters like Thatcher and rival candidate Jim Gettis, moreover, Kane’s megalomania seems almost attractive.  And despite his wealth and power, he always appears to be storming the fortress.

     Like Kane, the driven Zuckerberg brightens existence for the very people of whom he takes advantage.  Eduardo Severin, Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes, all of Facebook’s users and, yes, even the Winklevoss twins and their hapless sidekick, Divya Narenda, are better for having been exploited by him.   Also like Kane, Zuckerberg seems highly attractive when compared to the mundane and villainous characters he comes across .  Lawyers and university officials depicted in Sorkin and Fincher’s film are paradigms of mediocrity.  Napster creator Sean Parker, lacking Zuckerberg’s tragic and romantic motivations, is simply a narcissistic prick.  And Laurence Summers personifies “the banality of evil.”  By contrast, Zuckerberg achieves his goal of soaring above the contemptible establishment while providing a highly valued service, authority be damned!

      Readers delight in reading Kane’s newspapers.  Frat boys and coeds crave their Facebook connections.  And those in the orbit of the Hearst-like and the Zuckerberg-like characters all bask in the warmth of their radiance.

     But above all, “Citizen Kane” and “The Social Network” share their makers’ relentless adherence to the “truth of fiction.”  They are fictionalized  accounts of public citizens.  Orson Welles created his protagonist’s childhood and death out of whole cloth (William Randolph Hearst was very much alive in 1940) in order to tell the best story he could.

     Sorkin and Fincher, in their movie, seem to compress the separate Winklevoss and Severin lawsuits into one.  Such compression, as with Paul Schrader and Martin Scorcese’s merging of two real-life characters into one Joey LaMotta in “Raging Bull,” is simply a mainstay of good storytelling.  

     What’s more, just as Welles made up Rosebud (young Charlie’s sled), Aaron Sorkin invented Erica Albright, the woman who dumps Zuckerberg for being an incorrigibly  status-seeking cad -- “an asshole” -- and refuses to forgive his pathological behavior.  Presumably the desire to “get girl back” motivates Sorkin/Fincher’s protagonist to overachieve.  But the real Zuckerberg is still in a relationship with the woman who was his girlfriend before he founded Facebook.  And, in reality, he wouldn’t have flaunted his business ambitions to woo a lover who’d rejected him for overachieving. 

     So Sorkin and Fincher, again, stay close to the “Citizen Kane” model by creating a fictitious and dubious motivation for their character’s behavior.  Erica, like Rosebud, is a “McGuffin,” not an explanation.  If Kane’s deathbed invocation of his childhood plaything means anything, I think, it’s that when confronted by mortality, one is as likely to recall a small pleasure as he is an astounding achievement.  Surely Welles wasn’t saying that the loss of a sled explains building an opera house for an untalented singer, or fomenting an illegal war of imperial conquest.

      Fincher and Sorkin’s adaptation of Welles’s model, to be sure, was a choice from among several  established approaches to presenting a flawed central character.  In “The Graduate,” Benjamin Braddock is as cold, disordered and dispicable as Zuckerberg.  But Buck Henry and Mike Nichols tell the young man’s story from his own point of view.  Ben’s crass parents and their horrifying friends are seen through the young man’s snorkling goggles, their sounds drowned out by his own anxious, affectless breathing.  Thus the audience becomes the anti-hero, seeing the world as he does.  They can’t judge Benjamin harshly because they are Benjamin.  A brilliant strategy -- just not Sorkin’s and Fincher’s.

     Yet another style used to make pernicious protagonists likeable is to show them objectively, in cinematic third person rather than from other characters’ points of view, with a few admirable traits that make them compare favorably with even more odious personae.  This was Francis Coppola’s approach in “The Godfather.”  That film’s Don Corleone is a fiercely loyal family man with a strict code of business ethics.  His eldest son, Sonny; the drug dealer, Solozzo; police captain McClusky; disloyal son-in-law, Carlo -- everyone else lacks the Don’s redeeming qualities.  

     Of course, Coppola, given to operatic and classical storytelling, infused the Don’s flaws with tragedy.  Vito Corleone must  resort to violence in order to provide for and protect his family.  Tragically, and to varying degrees, he, his sons and his daughter become victims of the same kinds of violence used as a matter of course in the family business.

     So... Sorkin and Fincher might  have used Coppola’s approach or the one employed by  Buck Henry and Mike Nichols.  But they went to the Wellesian well instead.  It makes sense.  Their lead character, Mark Zuckerberg, like Charles Foster Kane, was based on an iconic public figure -- a titan in the field of communication -- and “Citizen Kane” told that  story perfectly.  True, David Fincher cast a non-heroic  actor, as had Mike Nichols.  Coppola and Welles cast larger-than-life actors in their lead roles.  A social network, I guess, is more anti-heroic than a newspaper empire.    

      But to return to my original point, the makers of “The Social Network” were able create a film that is, arguably, a contemporary masterpiece, because they have lived and breathed great films that told similar kinds of stories.  Did they consciously emulate “Citizen Kane?”  Maybe, maybe not.  But they certainly learned profound filmmaking lessons from watching it over and over again.

     Just as novelists have to be well-read and musicians need to know music, movie makers must maintain a high degree of film literacy.  Jonathan Franzen devoured Tolstoy novels before writing Freedom, while Keith Richards’ Life  and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles each show their authors’ encyclopedic knowledge of the blues.  A close look at “The Social Network” makes it clear that the motion picture canon is an integral part of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s narrative genius.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Listening to THE FIGHTER

Los Angeles, CA.  January 9, 2011.

     Friday night I attended a reception for the makers of “The Fighter,” followed by a screening, at the home of John and Nancy Ross.  Their beautiful abode, just off Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, has a breathtaking view of the city.  It also has something other canyon houses with great views don’t:  a state of the art motion picture dubbing stage.  That’s where the film’s sound was mixed.  And it proved to be a perfect place to experience fully the sonic delights in David O. Russell’s story of welterweight Mickey Ward and his crack addict brother, Dickie Eckland.   What a way to hear a movie!

      Reception guests included Oscar winning editor Alan Heim, editor/ producer Mary Sweeny, post production supervisor Bruce Markoe and “Fighter” sound designer Odin Benitez.  After fine dining and chatting with these esteemed colleagues, I made my way to the impressive sound stage.  In opening remarks, Mr. Russell thanked the Rosses, the audio crew and picture editor Pam Martin, and spoke about how, following the example of Frank Capra, he personally directed background and even off screen performances.   

     Mark Wahlberg, noting the room’s wide, plush chairs, joked that he didn’t want anyone to get comfortable enough to snooze through the picture.  He  added that great care and  thousands of judgements went into making “The Fighter.”  Less care and a few bad choices, he suggested, might have resulted in a movie that put everyone  to sleep, comfortable or not.  

      Talking about the manifold decisions entailed in making a film played like gangbusters to this crowd.  Script, casting, photographic, design, costume, hair, make-up, location, editing and, of course, sound choices are, after all, the group’s raison d’etre.  A simple look at the mixing console in front of us, with its hundred plus faders and thousands of knobs, was a reminder of how much work and planning, unbeknownst to most viewers, goes into the soundtrack of any motion picture.  

     “The Fighter” announces its audio signature of “pre-lapping” before its first image even appears on screen.  Over black, we hear Dickie’s flat New England stacatto.  Then we see him -- gaunt, full of nervous tics.  We hear an interviewer but he’s “off mic,” and that sound quality brings us right into the room -- not into a movie with its artifice of putting all dialogue on  mic.  We hear sparse background traffic and local, seasonal birds.  And these subtle choices by Mr. Benitez, Mr. Russell and Ms. Martin tell us all  about the size and feel of Lowell, Mass., home of Dickie Eckland and Mickey Ward.

    Soon -- again over black -- there’s a scraping sound, rich in metaphor.  Scraping by.  In and out of scrapes.  Scrape.  Scrape.  The image of Mickey’s rake appears, dragged over torn up Lowell pavement.   The welterweight is at work on a road-paving crew.  But the abrasive sound of his tool is soon upstaged by Dickie’s fists, annoyingly darting in and out of frame.  As a fighter, Dickie’s so “squirrely, you don’t even know (he’s) there.”  But as a brother to Mickey, he’s more irritating than harshly raked gravel; you can’t forget  he’s there.

     Dickie bellows that he’s “the pride of Lowell,” and a song bursts onto the soundtrack -- one of many pieces in “The Fighter” known in film editing as “scorce.”   The term refers to a song -- which might come from a source such as a radio or juke box -- used as motion picture underscore.  Dickie’s crackhead mania, Lowell’s fever over having an HBO documentary crew on its streets and Mickey’s lusty optimism are all conveyed sonically as the cue blends with dialogue, background chatter, hard sound effects, bird and traffic backgrounds -- literally dozens of tracks subtley woven together to create a unified whole.

     After the screening, I discussed what we’d just heard with sound designer Odin Benitez, who was still excited as can be about a film he’s seen over a hundred times!  Mr. Russell’s ability to “think outside the box” and his high level of comfort with lulls in the soundtrack remained impressive to him as ever.  Without quiet moments, Mr. Benitez pointed out, the “busier” scenes -- Mickey’s bouts and Dickie’s arrest -- wouldn’t have packed the roundhouse punch they do.

      It was delightful to listen to the sound designer enthuse about using Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times” in “The Fighter.”  The classic song plays as “scorce” when Dickie’s fundraising scheme (posing as a police officer to shake down a john) is foiled by real cops and he and Mickey are brutally beaten.   In John Ross and Myron Nettinga’s mix, ear-piercing police sirens and Jimmy Paige’s shreiking guitar riffs become indistinguishable, signalling a shattering of  the characters’ dreams.  And the  soundtrack’s emotional impact is overwhelming, a sonic equivalent of Edward Munch’s “The Scream.” 

     This powerful final mix of dozens of music channels, dozens of dialogue channnels and hundreds of sound effects channels is the product of weeks of hard work by many talented people.  On the road to the finished product, Odin Benitez said, “The Fighter” had three “temp dubs,”  or temporary mixes.  These mini-mixes, completed in a few days time, are a tool filmmakers use for test screenings.  They help create a track that -- with rudiments of music, sound effects and “cleaned up” dialogue -- becomes an audio facsimile of a finished film, enabling test audiences to feel like they’re responding to a movie they’ve bought tickets to see.  

     But temp dubs are also rehearsals for the final soundtrack.  In Mr. Benitez’s case, they provided an opportunity to preview “design elements” for the director and to learn how Mr. Russell wanted Lowell, Mass. to sound.  The mini-mixes also enabled the designer to see  how closely he could match the director’s sonic model, “Raging Bull,” without making “The Fighter” sound dated. 

     As motion picture budgets shrink, the temp dub has, unfortunately, become a “corner” some independent film producers think they can cut.  But they can’t.  Not if they want to create films that, like “The Fighter,” will be remembered for generations to come.  As everyone at Friday night’s screening learned, the film’s carefully constructed, dynamic and brilliant soundtrack is a key to its huge, lasting emotional wallop.  And brilliance doesn’t come from cutting corners.


What's a Post-Production Exec?/Being Steven Spielberg

Los Angeles, CA.  January 6, 2011.

     Marty Cohen, an old friend, has resigned as head of post-production at Paramount.  The truth is, I don’t think Marty ever liked the job.  He took it after running post at Dreamworks (and Amblin, its predecessor), simply because Steven Spielberg asked him to.  Amblin and Dreamworks were boutiques, built around one great filmmaker (Mr. Spielberg.)  Paramount is a large corporate entity inside a mega-conglomorate.  And Marty’s always been more of a boutique kind of guy. 

     His departure brings back a fond memory of the Amblin days.  But before sharing it, I should explain what a studio post production head does, since no one outside the movie business would know.  In fact, aside from those who work in post-production itself -- the period from the end principal photography on a film through the striking of prints that will be shipped to shopping mall cinemas -- most people in  the film industry  are unaware of the position.

     Marty’s job was to oversee the studio’s post supervisors.  The supervisors are responsible for budgeting, making deals on and scheduling every aspect of the editing, sound editing, sound mixing, visual effects, color correction and titles of the company’s movies.  They’re the ones who approve overtime for any of the dozens of editors, assistant editors,visual effects technicians and sound editors whose names you see in end title sequences.   Consulting with the post v.p., they have to schedule test screenings in a way that accounts for the filmmakers’ needs and  the time commitments of  busy studio executives.  

     In addition to monitoring and guiding the work of supervisors, Marty’s former job and that of his colleagues at the other studios, entails being a laison between filmmakers and heads of the studios.  It is often the post executive’s difficult task to present an estimate of overages that getting a film into theatres on its release date will entail.  Even more stressful, the work often requires saying “no” to extremely demanding producers and directors. 

     But, to be sure, the job has its lighter aspects.   One of these is simply getting to know a lot of editors and sound editors (and their strengths and weaknesses).  That part, dining and chatting with cutters, brings me back to my fond recollection.

     Marty, in a way, was the Tom Hagen of post supervisors:  like the Godfather’s cosigliere,  he had “a special practice with only one cllient.”   Nonetheless, he managed to keep up with editors.  He and I met when I edited “Swing Kids,” a film that Spielberg producing partner Frank Marshall executive produced in 1992.  About a year later, we planned a catch-up lunch at Joseph’s Cafe on Yucca and Ivar in Hollywood, which, at the time, didn’t accept credit cards.  [The most hardcore fans of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” will recognize that intersection of Yucca and Ivar as the location of Joe Gillis (William Holden)’s apartment.]

     Marty was due back from London (where he’d been on a mission for Amblin) the day before we were to dine.  But flight delays caused him to arrive at LAX a mere few hours before our scheduled meal.  Somehow, he made it right on time.  In order too do so, however, he’d had to forego exchanging his British pounds for dollars.  So I picked up the tab.  For Steven Spielberg’s head of post production!  We had a good laugh.

     It turned out, though, that Marty took it seriously.  Within minutes of my return home, a runner from Amblin was at my door with cash to reimburse me for the lunch.  In Hollywood, where image is everything, Steven Spielberg picks up the tab.  Always.

     Ironically, about ten years after that incident, I had another “only in Hollywood” experience with Mr. Spielberg and dining out.  I’d decided to sport a beard, which grew in kind of salt-and-pepper.  My dress style at the time was L.A. casual:  jeans, white tennis shoes, baseball cap.  I wore wire framed glasses.  Underneath the cap, the glasses and the beard, I had what my grandmother used to call a yiddishe punim (a Jewish face).  And at my stature, I wasn’t getting signed by the Lakers any time soon.  

     So I began to get exceptionally good treatment in cafes and restaurants.  Suspecting what was up, I started to tip really well.  Way above the norm.  After all, I didn’t want Mr. Spielberg -- for whom I’d been mistaken -- to get an unearned reputation as a tightwad.  

     One Sunday night my wife and I went to a lovely eatery, called Cynthia’s on Third.  The place was quite empty; there were lots of vacant tables.  But Cynthia sat us right next another couple... J-Lo and Ben Affleck!  Our meal was great, if a bit pricey for a film editor and a speech therapist -- the more so because of my exhorbitant tip.  

     I went home and shaved.

     Of course, the above has nothing to do with Marty Cohen or post production.  Except that it’s hard for most editors to think about Marty without thinking of his long-standing professional relationship with Steven Spielberg.  He was, after all, Mr. Spielberg’s post supervisor on every film the director made in the past two decades.  That’s an incredible track record in a crucial job about which the general public and most people in the film industry know next to nothing.  We editors, I'm sure, all wish Marty the best of luck in his post-Paramount period!    


Award Eligibility

Los Angeles, CA.  December 29, 2010.

      Los Angeles has emptied out for the holidays, as it does every year.  There are more Angelinos from the film industry in Hawaii right now than there are in town.  So it’s fun to be here.  Traffic -- on the roads, in restaurants and at movie theatres  -- is almost non-existent. I’ve been watching movies the studios are pushing for awards free of charge, at home with dvd “screeners” they’ve sent, or using my Academy and Guild cards at commercial cinemas and plush screening rooms.

     And I talk about films with friends and colleagues non-stop, via email, text, Facebook and phone.  A big topic of conversation, today, is last week’s announcement that Carter Burwell’s music for the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” is ineligible for an Oscar.  Because the composer based his work on Protestant hymns, notably “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” it’ cannot be considered for the best original l score award.  But this isn’t the first time Mr. Burwell derived his compositions for the Coens from existing themes.  I worked with the brilliant composer on “Raising Arizona” and “Miller’s Crossing,” the underscores of which  shed light on the current flap.

     Perhaps as early as the screenwriting stage, Joel and Ethan Coen heard the score of “Raising Arizona” in their heads.  It would be a variation on Pete Seeger’s “Goofin’ Off Suite,” itself a banjo and yodeling arrangement of the “Ode to Joy” from Beethven’s Ninth.  Mr. Burwell delivered what the filmmakers had imagined and then some.  Yes, and then some.   Not  only was the warbling Alpine rather than the Appalachian or folksy Americana flavor we expected, the score for much of the movie had nothing to do with Pete Seeger or Beethoven at all .  Mr. Burwell’s biker theme, his Snopes theme and his underscore for Hi’s fight with Gale Snopes were completely original.  

     Like “Raising Arizona,” “Miller’s Crossing” had a soundtrack the Coen Brothers imagined before the film was shot.  They heard, in their heads, variations on “Danny Boy” -- Hibernian music for their Irish-American characters’ Tom and Leo -- transformed into a movie score.   And their composer delivered that, but with brilliant orchestrations that enhanced the emotional experience of the movie without leading viewers to hum the actual song.

     What’s remarkable to my colleagues and me is that most  motion picture scoundtracks entail adaptation.  And members of the Academy’s music branch know this.  When directors with whom I work turn their films over to a composer for scoring, it’s normal to include a “temp” track.  Playing music from other movies as accompaniment for scenes in their rough cuts, directors and editors learn what works and what doesn’t, and and use what they’ve learned to guide the composer toward the final soundtrack.  Often composers’ music editors participate in the process, offering pieces of music from their employers earlier work that might be appropriate to the current project.

      Some underscore writers resist using the “temp” track as a starting point.  A few even refuse to listen to it.  But many, especially when they know their directors' tastes well, embrace it fully.  The amazing David Newman, when I worked with him on Herbert Ross’s “Boys on the Side,” actually encouraged Mr. Ross to license a piece of temporary music which seemed to work perfectly in a dialogue scene between Whoopi Goldberg and Mary Louise Parker. 

     Ironically, when I edited with the Coen Brothers, they didn’t  use “temp” underscore.  I don’t think they do now.  Carter Burwell’s work is based on extensive dialogue about what will be most effective, not actual music.  Thus even his “adaptations” are completely original.  

     And this is highly unusual.  Every other director with whom I’ve worked, from Woody Allen on “Manahattan” (1979) to Josh Radnor on “Happythankyoumoreplease” (2011), has attached temporary music to his rough cut.  I will never forget how surprised (and I suspect chagrined) Zubin Mehta was to learn he was expected to conduct “Rhapsody in Blue” for Mr. Allen’s “Mannhattan” soundtrack at the austere tempo of the Leonard Bernstein recording the director had chosen as “temp.”

     Something that keeps coming up in my discussions of Mr. Burwell’s ineligibility for Oscar consideration for “True Grit” is the Academy music branch’s last-minute decision, in 1973, to disqualify Nino Rota’s music for “The Godfather.”  Part of Mr. Rota’s underscore, appparently, was a variation on a theme from an 1958 Italian movie.  Here, as well, there is irony.  Two years later, Mr. Rota received an Academy Award for Best Original Score for “The Godfather Part II,” which used the same theme.

     My colleagues and musician friends also point out that “variations on themes” are an esteemed mainstay of classical music.  Bartok’s string quartets, felt by many to be the greatest compositions ever written in that genre, were inspired by Hungarian, Slovakian and Romanian folk music.  Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was, in part, based on Russian folk melodies.  Brahms wrote the highly acclaimed “Variations on a Theme of Paganini.”  And on and on and on.

     Also, Academy nay-sayers argue, oodles of film scores are “inspired” by other works.  The great Bernard Herrmann paid obvious homage, in his Hitchcock scores, to Beethoven, Stravinsky and others.  Many fans of Bill Conti’s theme for the “Rocky” films feel it owes its spirit to Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”  And to my ear, Nino Rota’s “Godfather Part II” music  owes as much to Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio for Strings in G Minor” as it does to any earlier motion picture soundtrack. 

     At any rate, even editors who are out of town for the holidays have spent a good part of the day talking movie talk, as usual.  It’s been said that if there are two film editors in a room (or on line), there will be three opinions.  

     After the weekend, Los Angeles will once again be filled with filmmakers.  But January is always a slow month for work.  So we’ll continue to attend screenings and argue (good-naturedly) about the upcoming awards, and we’ll start to look for work, hoping there’ll be more of it to go around than there was in 2010.  



I think it would be fun to run a newspaper!

     A few weeks ago one of my oldest friends began blogging for The New York Times as a "scientist at work."  What she's written so far has been engaging for scientists and lay people alike.  While reading her blogs, it occurred to me that doing the same kind of thing from inside the film industry might entertain and inform movie buffs and filmmakers in a similar fashion.

     Here, I'll be sharing reflections on work experiences, screenings, colleagues' milestones, motion picture news and so on.  From time to time, I'll invite fellow filmmakers to contribute as well.  The earliest posts you'll see were composed over the past couple of weeks; from here on, journal entries appear as soon as they're written.

     A common theme will be how much those of use who make movies love watching them -- especially the great ones.  Hence, the title of this piece, "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper!"  That's what Charles Foster Kane tells his former conservator, Mr. Thatcher, when deciding how to invest his fortune.  Indeed, I think it will be fun to keep an online diary.