Friday, February 25, 2011


February 25, 2011

     Sunday evening, February 27, hundreds of millions of movie fans will watch the 83d annual Academy Awards.  These viewers may not be aware of a fact that merits particular attention this year, as Wisconsin’s public sector employees stand up for their rights:  every presenter and almost every recipient on the Oscar broadcast belongs to a labor organization.  Every musician in the pit, every camera operator, every cable puller -- everyone involved carries a union card!  

     The benefits of collective bargaining for workers in the film and television industries -- a category that includes actors, writers and directors as well as so-called technicians -- are obvious:  We are more or less adequately compensated when we apply our rare skill sets, acquired and honed during years of apprenticeship and hard work, to make films from which investors may profit in perpetuity.  The Motion Picture Industry Health Plan provides affordable health care to us and our families.  When required to toil 16 hour days, we are paid premium rates for the sacrifice of our time and, on occasion, our health.

     Less apparent, perhaps, but equally real are the advantages of organized labor for producers and studios.  A union shop, as European businesspeople have known for decades, is a productive one.  When workers receive fair pay, they’re motivated to do a good job.  Equally important, decent remuneration encourages management  to be efficient.  When an hour on a movie set or sound mixing stage is costly, filmmakers’ precious minutes won’t be squandered as a result of poor production planning.  In my personal experience, far more time and (therefore) money are wasted during the making of low-budget non-union movies than on studio features.

     What’s happening in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker disingenuously blames unions for budget shortfalls he created with ill-advised tax cuts for the rich -- indeed, where the governor is trying to bust unions altogether by making it illegal for public sector employees such as teachers, police and firefighters to bargain collectively -- is that workers are standing up for their rights.  Democratic state senators are heroically resisting what Nobel laureate Paul Krugman views as a domestic application of “the shock doctrine,” a term coined by best-selling author Naomi Klein.  Dr. Krugman describes the doctrine as follows: “right wing ideologues exploit(ing) crises to push through an agenda which has nothing to do with resolving those crises and everything to do with imposing their vision of a harsher, more unequal, less democratic society.”   (Paul Krugman, “Shock Doctrine, U.S.A.,, February 24, 2011.)

     Who in the industry wouldn’t be proud if Oscar broadcast participants showed solidarity with the working people of Wisconsin?  Year in and year out, on the red carpet and onstgage at the Kodak theatre, we see AIDS ribbons on gowns and tuxedo lapels.  On Sunday, why not the clenched fist symbol, which supporters of Wisconsin’s municipal employees have adopted in homage to the early 1980’s Polish shipyard workers movement? 

     Every time people watching the 83d annual Academy Awards laugh at a joke, they’ll remember it was written by a member of the Writers Guild of America... that every tune they enjoy is played by members of the American Federation of Musicians.  And as we’re reminded of unions’ contribution to high quality film and television, we might also recall a Facebook post by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin: 

     "Only 5 states do not have collective bargaining for educators and have deemed it illegal. Those states and their ranking on ACT/SAT scores are as follows: South Carolina -50th/ North Carolina -49th/ Georgia -48th/ Texas -47th/ Virginia -44th. If you are wondering, Wisconsin is currently ranked #2."



Tuesday, February 22, 2011


February 22, 2011

     Post production honorary groups -- American Cinema Editors (ACE), the Cinema Audio Society (CAS) and Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) -- held their annual awards dinners this past weekend.  Eclipsed by the upcoming Oscars, these ceremonies deserve more industry-wide recongnition.  Follow the links below to see who won: 
American Cinema Editors Eddie Awards: winners/ 

Cinema Audio Society Awards: 
Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel Awards:      micmacs- country- strong/ 
     Congratulations to all! 

     Personal weekend highlights included breaking bread with dear friend and music editor extraordinaire David Bondelevich, and participating in a Facebook exchange about whether my editing guru, the ever amazing Paul Hirsch, was “hard to work for.”  Eddie Award winner (for an episode of "Modern Family") Jonathan Schwartz had said as much during his acceptance speech, while thanking Paul for being an inspiration.   The verdict:  Mr. Hirsch, editor of "Star Wars," "Ferris Beuller's Day Off," "Ray" and a long list of other deservedly iconic films, is a rigorous, demanding mentor and also as witty as can be. 

     It was also quite enjoyable to hear CAS Career Achievement honoree Jeff Wexler, at a "meet the winners" gathering, discuss unique work methods of directors for whom he’s recorded, including Hal Ashby and Cameron Crowe.  

     And, as always, it was a genuine pleasure to chat with the prodigiously talented and generous Tom Fleishman, CAS winner for Outstanding Achievement in Mixing for a TV Series ("Boardwalk Empire") and an old friend.  Tom has mixed some of the most acclaimed motion pictures of the past 30 years, among them “Silence of the Lambs,” “Malcolm X” and “Goodfellas.”  He’s currently working on a documentary that, even with his astonishing resume, must make him pinch himself to make sure he’s not just dreaming.  I hope to interview Tom in this space when his work on that film, Martin Scorcese’s “Living in the Material World,” is completed. 

Friday, February 18, 2011


February 20, 2011

     Two days ago I posted a version of this entry which began with 3 extraneous paragraphs.  "I buried the lead," as Albert Brooks' character, Aaron Altman, said in "Broadcast News."  So I've edited the piece to begin where it should.   What follows, then, is "Whiteout, The Special Edition:"

     In the Sunday, February 13th Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times, Manhola Dargis and A.O. Scott wrote about the paucity of roles for African-American actors in Hollywood movies this year (”Hollywood’s Whiteout Year:  Few Blacks on Silver Screen”).  The article upset Whoopi Goldberg, whose 1990 award (for “Ghost”) wasn’t mentioned alongside later wins by Denzell Washington, Halle Berry, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Hudson and Mo’Nique.  Ms. Goldberg (with whom I had the privilege of working on Herbert Ross’s “Boys on the Side”) accused Dargis and Scott of “sloppy journalism.”

     Perhaps the real problem was a lack of clarity in their prose; I had to read the piece a couple of times before I fully grasped the authors' point, which is as follows:  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has bestowed its awards annually for 83 years.  In the first 73, only 7 black actors received Oscars (all of them, including Ms. Goldberg, unnamed by the writers).  In the next nine years, another 7 (those mentioned above) won the coveted statuette -- a tremendous acceleration.  But this year there was a marked deceleration.  Hence the critics ask, “Are the coming Oscars an anomaly, or an unsettlling sign of the times?” 

     Clarification to the contrary notwithstanding, however, the piece by Dargis and Scott is hardly a paragon of rigorous reporting.  For one thing, the authors fail to mention that Best Supporting Actress nominee Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”), according to Wickipedia, “has African-American ancestry on her mother’s side.”  For another, like most newsroom movie pundits, they sacrifice cogent analysis for the sake of would-be cleverness. “So,” they ask at the end of their article, “is class the new race?”  Such a glib question assumes the very best movies to be ephemeral and trendy -- the opposite of what their makers intend, indeed, the opposite of what their viewers experience.  "Winter's Bone," "The Town" and "The Fighter" were not made because socioeconomic status is "in" this year.  

     But most eggregious is that the Times critics are blind to the issue of race in the film business as a whole.  They write, “A few years (after ‘In the Heat of the Night’ and ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ together won 17 Oscars in 1967), ...African-Americans began to appear on screen and behind the camera to an unprecedented extent.”  Behind the camera?  Really??  Where had they all gone by the time I began to work in the industry in the late ‘70’s?

     One of the reasons I started blogging is that I’d grown weary of film journalism which supposes that films are made solely by actors, screenwriters and directors.  The rest of us --  cinematographers, gaffers, sound recordists, production and costume designers, editors, sound editors, mixers and countless other craftspeople involved in production -- remain invisible to many reviewers for newsweeklies or dailies.  If we didn’t, Manhola Dargis and A.O. Scott couldn’t think there was ever a significant African American presence “behind the scenes.”

     I won't beat around the bush:  The film industry is overwhelmingly white -- to a degree unparalleled in other arts and professions.  To be sure, my evidence for this claim is empirical, not statistical.  At Motion Picture Editors Guild and American Cinema Editors gatherings, I simply don’t see more than a small handful of black colleagues.  The same is true on studio lots and at independent post production facilities.  Even the "urban films" on which I've worked have had mostly white crews. 

     And Oscar history reflects my personal experience.  Hugh A. Robertson, editor of “Midnight Cowboy” in 1969, remains the only African-American cutter ever to receive an Oscar nomination.   There has been only one black cinematography nominee, Remi Adeferasin, director of photography on “Elizabeth” in 1999.  Three African-American costume designers have been nominated in 83 years, as have two black sound mixers. 

     There should be statistical research on this subject.  We might discover that what is perceived as the most liberal U.S. industry remains basically inaccessible to people of color.  And we might, then, address the problem.  What Manhola Dargis and A.O. Scott wrote about was “the tusk in the room.”  This is the elephant.    



Tuesday, February 15, 2011


February 15, 2011

     On Oscar night more than one recipient will thank his or her family for being patient with the long work hours entailed in making a film.  But glib references to the extraordinary amount of labor time it takes to create a movie can’t convey how shockingly arduous production schedules can be.  Viewers outside the industry might think winners are grateful because their loved ones agreed to a late dinner a few times a week.  Or because they put up with the occasional missed t-ball game or parent teacher conference. Not even close.  

     A typical day on-set can leave the filmmaker with barely enough time at home to unwind for a half hour, get a few hours of sleep and arise to do it all over again.   Eliminating days (or even weeks) from production and post production schedules by lengthening the work day itself benefits film financiers, because doing so facilitates recouping their investment more quickly.  It also enables them to cut overhead costs such as space and equipment rental, and even to cut down on union “fringes” (pension and health insurance contributions); the faster a picture is finished, the sooner bill-paying stops.

     Looking at contractual “guarantees” sheds considerable light on the movie industry workweek.  A minimum 12 hour day is typical in crew/management agreements.  The upside for filmmakers is that we will be paid for 12 hours (as will our fringe benefits) even when we knock off after 10.  But we usually don’t  leave after a mere 10 hours.  And given that, the advantage for producers is tremendous.  When the crew is entitled to a 12 hour day, time and a half doesn’t kick until after the guaranteed employment period.  So a typical film production week is at least 60 hours -- one and a half times the norm which was hard won after a century of labor struggles.

     Fortunately, some moviemmakers don’t like extremely long work days.  The Coen brothers and Woody Allen leave the cutting room at 6 pm or earlier and manage to get a lot done each week.  The late Sally Menke, Quenten Tarantino’s editor, was famously family-oriented, knocking off in time for dinner with her husband and two children every evening; her amazing work attests to the viability of such a schedule.  I found, with the Coens and with Paul Dinello on “Strangers With Candy,” I got more high quality work done in a 40 hour week than in a longer one.  

     This issue is framed far more dramatically in the documentary “Who Needs Sleep?,” directed by renowned cinematographer Haskell Wexler.  He made the film when camera assistant Brent Hershman died after falling asleep at the wheel on his way home from a “typical” 17 hour day, and has used it to spearhead a “12 hours on/12hours off” movement in Hollywood.  Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Mr. Wexler and others, production schedules have gotten worse of late. 

     Until a few years ago, moderately budgeted feature films were shot in 8 to 12 weeks.  Now, a mere 30 days of principal photography is considered acceptable (as it was on “The Fighter”) and 20 day shoots are not unheard of.  Such radical trimming of production schedules is accomplished by cutting corners (in ways audiences do feel!) and, at times, by lengthening the work day. 

     Ironically -- and necessarily -- filmmakers’ intense work periods are frequently followed by protracted stretches of unemployment.  And despite the economic “hit,”  not working is usually a welcome relief.  Idle periods are used for recharging -- physically, emotionally, even professionally.  I recently ran into one of last year's nominees for Best Editing -- a man who had spent all of 2009 working long 6 and 7 day weeks; in 2010 he stayed away from cutting altogether.

     Some of us choose to travel while out of work.  Others give ourselves concentrated doses of what we call “real life:”  appointments with doctors, dentists, optometrists, accountants -- even marriage counsellors.  We engage in deferred home maintenance, family projects, classes.  

     I use breaks from editing to read lengthy or difficult novels -- Infinite Jest, say, or Underworld.  Re-viewing classic films helps me recharge.  And going to the theatre -- a lifelong favorite pastime -- becomes possible when, between projects, I can actually make an 8 o’clock curtain.  (I look forward to seeing Jane Fonda in “33 Variations” this week.)

     The unemployment period is also a good time to write about life in the film industry.  Sitting down last Friday with blogger Dennis Cozzallio to have our annual Oscar chat for his delightful site, “Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule” (, I marvelled at his ability create new posts, parent and work a full time job.  My next editing stint will definitely make me turn to guest wrtiters for “Filmmaker’s Diary” content.




Friday, February 11, 2011

HOW DID I GET HERE? (Part One of Many)

February 11, 2011

     Midway through writing my next post (about the odd rhythm of the film industry -- 60 to 80 hour work weeks, followed by protracted periods of rejuvination), I had an amazing experience.  As a longtime fan of Roger Ebert’s, I’d emailed him a link to “filmmaker’s diary.”  He enjoyed it, which was beyond flattering, and tweeted it.  So... welcome to over a thousand new readers!  And thank you, Roger, from the bottom of my heart.   

     I became aware of Mr.Ebert, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, in the 1980’s when he wrote favorable pieces about a somewhat new phenomenon:  independently financed feature films.  Full-blown admiration came in the ‘90’s while watching “At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.”  The critics’ enthusiasm and their often heated discussions introduced my children, with whom I viewed the show, to the idea that motion pictures were worth talking about.  Passionately.  

     The kids (and all viewers) looked forward to installments of “At the Movies” with the same excitement felt by lovers of cinematic art awaiting reviews during the “golden era” of film criticism in the 1970’s.  At that time Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell and Jonas Mekas wrote for “The Village Voice” on a weekly basis.  Pauline Kael did so at “The New Yorker.”  Paul Schrader penned brilliant critical pieces for the “L.A. Reader” and Roger Ebert did the same at “The Chicago Sun-Times.” 

     Such critics were advocates for unduly neglected directors and genres.  Sarris encouraged readers to see the work of Hollywood auteurs like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock in a new way.  Mekas sang the praises of underground experimental filmmakers Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brackhage and others. Schrader inspired Angelinos (and later, the rest of us) to take film noir seriously.  Kael championed films by Brian De Palma, Bernardo Bertolucci and Arthur Penn.  And Ebert defended Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” along with Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” against moralizing philistines, drawing attention to the filmmaking genius behind both works.

     The critcs engaged in dialogue with their readers -- challenging them, prodding them.  Readers responded by thinking deeply about movies they saw at the dozens of revival cinemas and art houses in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.  Some were moved so deeply by the profound and exciting discussions (and, of course, by the pictures themselves), they became filmmakers.

     Which brings us back to the title of this post.  Yes, reviewers who actually fought for films in which they believed inspired me and many likeminded buffs to want to make movies.  Exposed as we were to the French New Wave, a movement in which a nation’s best critics became its best directors, we assumed the road between criticism and creativity would always be well-travelled.  At some point, after the ‘70’s, reviewing became more a vehicle to inform consumers and less a platform to inspire artists.  But Ebert remains, blessedly, a throwback to the “golden age.”  The advent of filmmakers and scholars blogging about what they love, I hope, steers us in that direction as well.




Monday, February 7, 2011


February 7, 2011

     My Academy ballot arrived a few days ago.   Reviewing the nominees, I responded the same way I do every year.  First, I was both surprised and amused by the fact that I take voting so seriously.  Then, I said “what the heck,” and began to consider each choice as though a great deal is actually at stake. 

      Ranking all manner of things is a mainstay of popular culture.  In sports we have Most Valuable Players, Super Bowl Champs, Major League Champs, NBA Champs, Heavyweight Champs, Hall of Famers and more.  There are Emmys in television, Grammys in music.  And now we live in a world of Survivors, Idols, Top Chefs, even Best Moms and Dads.  So it’s natural for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to reward our highest achievers.

     We do so even though we know that, as Cervantes wrote, “comparisons are odious.”  (Or as Dogberry says in Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About Nothing,” "comparisons are odorous.”)  So why do we do it?  Because the Academy Awards, for voting members, are less about picking craftspeople and movies we believe are better than all others and more about promoting awareness of cinema and filmcraft.  It’s good for us and good for film appreciation in general when, one evening a year, a billion viewers think about the fact that the motion pictures they love are written, directed, performed, lit, photographed, designed, edited, scored and made with actors in costumes and make-up.  That there are documentaries (feature length and short), and shorts (animated and live action).  That movies are made all over the world in all languages.  And that we care about their quality. 

     To convince Academy members that their films are award-worthy, distributors take out “for your consideration” ads in industry trade papers (Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, among others), send out dvd “screeners” to the membership and schedule promotional exhibition of the pictures (often accompanied by stimulating Q&A sessions with filmmakers) in plush screening rooms.  Also, Academy (or guild) card holders are admitted free to neighborhood moviehouses showing movies in contention for the Oscar.  Presumably, then, voters are aware of all the pictures and filmmakers eligible for the industry’s highest honor.

     Of course, the system is imperfect.   When my ballot arrived, I realized I hadn’t seen all of the contenders.  Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s “Biutiful,” for example, had flown under my radar.  LD Entertainment, the film’s distributor, used its limited resources to campaign solely on behalf of lead actor Javier Bardem.  Since members of the Academy’s editors branch only nominate Best Picture and Best Editing, we didn’t receive “screeners” of this deeply affecting picture.  And that’s too bad.  

     Javier Bardem’s portrayal of an overburdened mid-level criminal is, indeed, brilliant.  And as I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, great performances are carefully constructed from excellent raw material during post production.  Thus cutter Steve Mirrione, A.C.E., whose credits include “Oceans Eleven,” “Babel” and “Traffic” (and with whom I served on an A.C.E. panel last week while still unaware of his work on “Biutiful”) should have gotten an Oscar nomination.  So, too, should the film itself, along with Maricel Alvarez, who gives what could be a career-making performance.   

     To be sure, larger studios try to allocate their Oscar campaign resources as frugally as small indies do.  Consequently they don’t inundate members outside the writers branch with scripts, nor do they send score and and song cds to non-music branch voters during the nominating process.  Such promotional materials reach the full membership only after AMPAS’ final ballots are announced. 

     Yesterday, I received David Seidler’s screenplay for “The King’s Speech.”  Reading it, I immediately noted something that all filmmakers know:  while a film of lasting power cannot be made from a poor text, the script is never brought to the screen without, literally, hundreds of changes.  A film is so different from its screenplay -- there are so many re-writes during pre-production and principal photography, as well as deletions, changes in structure and additional shooting during "post" -- that it’s hard to tell what version of a writer's work members actually peruse.  

     The published text of a stage play matches what its opening night audience sees after a period of rehearsals and previews, during which there is much editing and rethinking.  This may be the case, as well, with published screenplays.   Academy members, however, judge a hybrid of a film’s original shooting draft and its final cut.  With “The King’s Speech” voters received an incarnation that contains only scenes which are in the theatrical release.  

     But when a film is as good as director Tom Hooper’s story of the stammering Prince of York, I guarantee you, there were countless dialogue deletions as well as cuts of whole scenes.  While assembling a movie, a director and editor must be sensitive to ways in which brilliant actors express with a gesture what a page of words might only approximate.  They must be aware of how quickly viewers comprehend a point of plot or character without all the scripted talk.  We test movies in screenings for friends and strangers.  And we always learn the same thing:  if we didn’t make cuts -- even in motion pictures made from superior texts -- audiences would become worn out rather quickly.        

      What’s more, even in the case of the David Seidler screenplay sent to Academy members -- all its scenes still in the film, all in scripted order -- there is still a world of difference between what’s on the page and what’s on the screen.   Right atop page 1, the title card is not the one in the movie.  The BBC News Reader’s theatrical preparation for his broadcast is largely absent from the text.  So, of course, are the wide angle lenses which show Bertie’s horribly distorted world (a bold choice by Mr. Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen)!  There’s no horse whinny exacerbating the awkwardness of 100,000 hushed listeners at Empire Stadium in Seidler’s script; that was likely the idea of Mr. Hooper, editor Tariq Anwar or the picture’s sound designer. 
     It’s fair to ask, if the finished film diverges so much from the original (or adapted) screenplay, how can voters choose “the best?”   The answer, really, is that whatever a viewer feels is the Best Picture was made from the best script. A text that inspires the director, cast and crew to make the most moving, lasting film is, itself, superlative.  Writing that gives the director and editor raw material from which they shape the best movie is the best writing.  Yes, with that standard, a voter really needn’t look at scripts studios send to Academy members for consideration.  True.  But the good screenplays are so much fun to read.