Thursday, August 23, 2012


     This time last year I was scrambling to get a rough cut of LIBERAL ARTS in shape for submission to The Sundance Film Festival.  Things turned out well.  The movie became an Official Sundance Selection and received standing ovations at every one of its Park City screenings.  It was acquired for distribution by IFC Films, which will bring it to theatres in New York and Los Angeles on September 14.

     One of the nice things about having time between the completion of a motion picture and its theatrical release – over 9 months in the case of LIBERAL ARTS – is that it provides an opportunity to reflect on one’s work.  Looking back at the production period, which began in June 2011, it’s clear that being on location with the cast and crew was extremely valuable to me as an editor.

     Of course, shooting on location was, in and of itself, essential to telling writer/director Josh Radnor’s tale.  The movie is about an admissions counselor at a large New York City university who returns to his alma mater, a small Midwestern college.  So filming in the Big Apple and at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio gave LIBERAL ARTS an authentic look and feel.

     But while it might seem obvious that a movie should be made where its characters live, a screenplay’s setting doesn’t always determine its shooting venue.  In recent film history, location selection is based as much on exchange rates and tax rebates as it is on narrative exigencies. Film crews flock to Vancouver, Toronto, Louisiana and Michigan for economic advantage rather than scripted geography.  THE LAST SHOT, a 2004 comedy starring Matthew Broderick and Alec Baldwin, captured this phenomenon well:  it’s about a filmmaker who’s convinced to shoot a southwestern desert story in Rhode Island because of the state’s tax incentives.

     So LIBERAL ARTS was wonderfully “old school.”  Like a John Ford western made in Monument Valley, a war epic shot in Southeast Asia or a Woody Allen movie set in Manhattan, Paris, Rome, Barcelona or London, it was made where its story takes place.  The advantages of doing so were numerous.

     First, Kenyon College looks just like what it is: a small Ohio institute of higher learning founded in the early 19th century.  Perfect for a film that tales place at a small Ohio college founded in the early 19th century!   In addition to providing the right mise en scene, the campus, no doubt, gave the cast a sense of place in a way that a studio back lot wouldn’t have.

     And as I said earlier, being on location was a boon to editing as well.  It always is, because the give and take between director and editor becomes so easy.  During principal photography on LIBERAL ARTS, Josh Radnor dropped by my editing suite several times a week to review dailies and cut material, and to give me notes.  Such communication facilitated delivery of a rough assembly that was much closer to his vision of the film than it might otherwise have been.

      There’s a sequence – one of my favorites – in which Josh’s character (Jesse) and Lizzie Olsen’s (Zibby) correspond via “snail mail” while listening to classical music she’s selected.  It’s a “getting to know you/let’s fall in love” montage of considerable length.

     When I’d edited the scene that precedes the montage, I had to cut in the first bit of score to kick things off.  The director had already given me recordings he wanted to use, which were loaded into my Avid editing system.  Because the montage begins with shots of bucolic landscapes, I chose the first movement of Beethoven’s 6th, his “Pastoral Symphony.”  Josh loved it.

     Watching this sequence begin to take shape while LIBERAL ARTS was still being filmed, I believe, informed directorial choices made while shooting letter writing (days later) and New York street scenes (weeks later).  Also, seeing how important a role the classical music CD itself played in the sequence convinced Josh we needed an insert (close-up) of the disc going into Jesse’s deck.  During post-production, this was always referred to as “the greatest insert ever shot;” its perfect fit into the cut and cinematographer Seamus Tierney’s rock star lighting of the prop are, indeed, remarkable.

     Wild tracks -- audio recorded without picture – were also vital to construction of the letter writing montage.  Sometimes, in a pinch, editors assemble scenes using “temp” voice-over recordings of cutting room personnel, in order to make critical judgments about the timing of shots.  Having actors perform their character’s lines is decidedly more effective.   But with tight production schedules it’s sometime hard to fit such wild track shooting in.

     Because I was on location I was able to nag the director, first assistant director and line producer often enough to get what we needed… on the last night of principal photography.  Using a makeshift recording booth built by sound mixer Jim Morgan, Josh and Lizzie, essentially, acted out the eight-minute sequence as a radio play. Much of what was recorded that night remains in the picture.

     Along with recording “wild tracks,” shooting inserts and “pick-ups” is always important to editors during the production period.  And being on location, we become aware of the need for such additional material sooner than we would have if we were a thousand miles away in Hollywood.  What’s more, working near the crew, the cutter can simply go to set (or lunch) with a laptop and show the director why new setups are necessary.  Several transition shots in LIBERAL ARTS – a café exterior, a chapel exterior and students chatting on campus, for instance -- were added to the production calendar as a result of such interaction.  Like the voice-over, they appear in the final cut.

     Advances in digital imaging technology enhanced the value of being on location by enabling me to view and edit what was shot the previous day first thing every morning.  Before motion pictures were photographed digitally, film dailies were processed in a lab (most likely in New York or Los Angeles), shipped back to location and then synchronized, coded and catalogued in the editing room.  What was shot Monday was cut-able on Thursday afternoon at the earliest. 

     Until recently, digital processing entailed a similar time lag.  But on LIBERAL ARTS our brilliant Digital Imaging Technician (DIT), Patrick Neri, ran what amounted to an on-set lab.  At the end of each day, he brought a dailies drive to the cutting room with Seamus Tierney’s color correction built in.  This material was transcoded on the Avid overnight and organized each morning by assistant editor Becca Berry while I was still on set.   The amazingly efficient "work flow" made me realize that not being on location would have delayed the editing process.

    What's more I would have missed daily trips to the set.  These visits were so valuable!   And not just because of the ease of in-person dialogue with Josh.  Watching him compose and stage shots, then go over dialogue and blocking with the actors gave me deeper insight into his intentions for each scene.  Being there as an observer as well as an occasional consultant helped me truly “get” the movie we were working on.

     Finally, there are certain intangible advantages to editing on location.  Producers have always benefited from moving film crews away from the demands of their everyday lives.  In a small town without family, friends and quotidian responsibilities, one is more likely to be focused on work more of the time.  This is especially true because filmmakers on location spend most of their time with fellow cast-and-crew members.

     As a result, deep friendships are formed.  And that, too, is good for the film.  I always fall in love with the cast of films I work on, developing something akin to real movie star crushes.  (I think most editors have the capacity to do this.)  Then it becomes second nature to be diligent about finding actors’ best work inside a hundred hours of dailies. How easy that was on LIBERAL ARTS with the affable Lizzie Olsen living two doors away!  With Richard Jenkins telling great, funny stories over dinner!  And with Josh Radnor being a kind, witty, generous Kenyon neighbor.

     This was my second film with him, and I must say that as a director, actor and friend, he’s easy to love.  To see Josh when fans of “How I Met Your Mother” approach is to see a real mensch; he knows that meeting him is the high point of their day and always behaves accordingly.  He’s ingenuous, curious, funny, smart and, again, generous.  On location, I mentioned Patti Smith and her memoir, Just Kids, showed up in a gift bag shortly thereafter. Also, to paraphrase Dean, a character in the movie, “we have the same favorite writer,” about whom we speak often.
     It was easy, too, to love the film’s production crew.  We all lived in the same housing complex and spent most evenings eating and drinking together.  Many of us, including actors and producers (Josh’s producer, a friend from childhood named Jesse Hara, is a genius at making sure his crew is happy) regularly sat around a fire at night, playing music and chatting.  (It was eventually dubbed The Ring of Fire.)  We hung out together on weekends – tube rafting, bike riding, even visiting Mansfield Prison where THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (a company favorite) was shot.  So it became easy, while still focused on story and performance, to want the film to look and sound its best, too – for one another as well as for Josh. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"So Easy," The Video

"So Easy," a video for the amazing Haroula Rose, about which I wrote in my last post, is now on YouTube, officially released!  Here's a link:

So Easy [Official Music Video] - YouTube

I hope readers enjoy it.  And I hope you have a look at A HARD DAY'S NIGHT and HELP, along with the Beatles' videos for "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever."  Also please seek out Haroula's music.

I'm on location in New Orleans - busy, busy, busy.  I'll write more when I come up for air.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


     When asked why I chose editing over other film crafts, I often recall my college internship at Calliope Films, a commercial production house.  There, on-set personnel arrived at work by 6 a.m.  Editors rolled in around 10.  The rest, as they say, is history.

     Of course, it’s not that simple.  Among those with a mid-morning start time at Calliope was Paul Hirsch (STAR WARS, etc.), then cutting TV spots between feature film assignments.  He was as brilliant and caring a mentor as he was an editor.  Chuck Workman, who owned the company, and Sonya Polonsky, a protégé of Thelma Schoonemaker’s, also helped guide me into post-production.

     But something more than a few extra hours of sleep each day and generous teachers had already drawn me to editing.  A few weeks ago, while preparing to direct a music video for singer/songwriter Haroula Rose, I realized what it was:  my passion for rock music exposed me to the editorial process before I even knew a name for it, and it tantalized me. 
     Haroula’s song “So Easy” (which, like our video, will be out in late April) is filled with allusions to early Beatles tunes.  So I began to study A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP!, along with promotional shorts the band made for such records as “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane” and “Hello, Goodbye.”  The hours flew by as I surfed across dozens of YouTube clips.  I discovered that director Richard Lester was a true groundbreaker. And I realized that the Beatles themselves, in order to avoid touring to promote new singles, invented the music video.
     Then, while viewing a film segment aired by Ed Sullivan in August1964, I remembered my first childhood experience of motion picture cutting.  I had seen the clip, in which “the boys” performed “You Can’t Do That,” when it was broadcast.  And I’d noticed, young as I was, that they’d played in the same auditorium wearing the same suits, and had been filmed in exactly the same style in the movie A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, which I’d seen a few weeks earlier.  Twice.  But “You Can’t Do That” wasn’t in the film.
     So, not yet a teenager, not knowing anything about filmmaking -- just watching “The Ed Sullivan Show” -- I discovered that scenes could be deleted from motion pictures (and reused elsewhere).  And the epiphany affected me deeply.  Later, of course, I would fall in love with cinema per se.  But rock’n’roll films were my gateway drug.
     On occasion, popular songs themselves heightened my fascination with editing.  About a year after Ed Sullivan ran the lifted sequence from A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, The Rolling Stones had a chart-topping hit with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”  At 3 minutes and 44 seconds, though, the song was at least a minute too long for top-40 AM play.  In addition, its third verse was thought to be “racy.”  So pop stations simply excised it.  I’d listen to the 45 rpm vinyl disc on my phonograph and compare it to what I heard on the radio.  Everything sounded identical except, of course, the length.
     Yet my pre-teen, pre-editing soul knew the truncated version wasn’t the same as the longer one.  The cut made by radio engineers was seamless, to be sure; verse three wouldn’t be missed if you didn’t know it existed.  But the abbreviated rendition of  “Satisfaction” seemed to respect authority while the longer one challenged it.  And, of course, deleting lyrics laced with sexual innuendo made the song less “hot.”  (Whatever that meant to a pre-teen.)
     A year and a half hence, during a January 1967 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the hot, sexy Stones taught another editing lesson.  CBS demanded that they change their line “let’s spend the night together” to “let’s spend some time together.”  Mick Jagger seemed to acquiesce.  But before he got to the words in question, the Stones’ front man belted out much more prurient lyrics which were on their record, somehow unnoticed by the censor:  

"I'm going red and my tongue's getting tired/I'm out of my head and my mouth's getting dry/I'm hi-hi-high…"
Those lines, it seemed, were ok with network standards and practices.   The Stones had, as requested, redacted the far less suggestive lyric, and the corporate beast was satisfied. 
     At the time there was no MPAA.  But nowadays, during ratings negotiations with that body, I occasionally think of Mick's ostensible capitulation to CBS.  And following his lead from the sixties, I’ll swap out marginally “offensive” words that irk MPAA board members in order to keep whole sequences that one would have thought far more vulnerable to bowdlerization.
     Once more in 1967, AM radio’s time constraints provided a potent demonstration of how a song could be dramatically altered by a seamless cut.  The Doors’ “Light My Fire” ran for 7 minutes on the band’s eponymous album; the 45 rpm single was under 3 minutes.  Eliminating its 4-minute instrumental section transformed the piece from a dark, brooding taste of early rock/jazz fusion to a mere pop tune.  This huge difference made me forever circumspect when, as a cutter, I’ve had to consider deleting scenes of substance from movies.
     I’m sure I couldn’t articulate these ideas about editing back in 1967.  I didn’t even conceive of them as such.  But later, rock documentaries like MONTEREY POP, WOODSTOCK and GIMME SHELTER introduced me to important filmmaking techniques – ways of assembling visual material that are mainstays in any editor’s bag of tricks.
     Watching D.A. Pennebaker’s cinema verite record of the Monterey Pop festival, for instance, I discovered what I eventually came to know as the “reaction cut-away.” During Janis Joplin’s life-changing performance of “Ball and Chain” (my life, that is), Pennebaker and editor Nina Schulman cut to a close-up of Mama Cass Elliot, mesmerized.  It jolted me.  The juxtaposition of shots made it clear that an accomplished singer was as moved as I –- perhaps to an even greater extent -- by Janis’s intensity.  So I felt more.  Heard through new ears, saw through new eyes.
     Such cut-aways were used later in MONTEREY POP, to achieve a similar effect.  In the middle of a stirring Ravi Shankar raga, the filmmakers inserted shots of guitar giants Mike Bloomfield and Jimi Hendrix, listening.  Their awestruck faces suggested that their music –- their focus and intention -- would somehow be transformed by the experience.  Viewers saw that the concert was momentous.  A sea change was occurring in the world of popular music.
     Years later, in college, I read Sergei Eisenstein’s Film Form, in which the Soviet director and theoretician wrote:  “From the collision (of two shots) a concept arises.”  I understood Eisenstein’s point –- that joining two shots adds something to a viewer’s experience not inherent in either image alone –- because I’d felt the power of such juxtapositions while watching musical performance footage. 
     Still more editing lessons were gleaned from movies that used popular songs as underscore.  A rendition of “Mrs. Robinson” on THE GRADUATE soundtrack which differed from the one on Simon and Garfunkle’s “Bookends” album made me aware that there could be different takes and different mixes of the same song or, by extension, the same shot or scene. WOODSTOCK’s split screens and staccato cutting showed me that flamboyant editing could be entertaining in and of itself.
     When I began to work in the film industry and continued to view rock’n’roll movies, they augmented and reiterated what I learned on the job.  The fact that performance quality is a preeminent filmmaking concern, for example, is obvious in Martin Scorcese’s THE LAST WALTZ, Hal Ashby’s LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE ROLLING STONES and Jonathan Demme’s STOP MAKING SENSE (which features song lyrics from which this post takes its title).  The vital importance of rhythm and precision in editing is something  I also discovered and rediscovered while viewing these documentaries.
     Certainly, all popular art is informed by material from other art forms.  For me, it’s been a blast to be reminded, during a current project, of the enormous impact rock music has had on my own work.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


  The A.C.E. Eddie Awards give film and television editors the opportunity to recognize their colleagues’ excellence, and to be acknowledged in return.  For practitioners of “the invisible art” – a pursuit that viewers and, for that matter, most people who work in film production don’t really comprehend – such an evening is delightful, perhaps even essential. 

   Listening to presenters and recipients’ insights and anecdotes at this year’s ceremony, I was reminded of a concert I attended as a young teenager.  The great Ravi Shankar played sitar, accompanied by tabla player, Allah Rakha.  During their performance, the maestros occasionally shared a smile.  When asked why, Pandit Ravi Shankar said they did so at moments when a more knowledgeable audience would have applauded.

   Presenting the 2012 Golden Eddie for career achievement in directing to Alexander Payne, Reese Witherspoon recalled asking him what part of filmmaking he liked best.  She thought it was a rhetorical question; surely his response would be, “working with actors.”  So she was deflated when Mr. Payne said he liked editing above all.

    A room full of editors smiled the Ravi Shankar smile; we’ve all heard the same thing from directors.  The set is chaotic, the cutting room serene.  During principal photography, momentous decisions must be made in front of a large crew while, during post-production, bold experiments can be conducted in private.  When cast and crew complete a scene, they don’t return to it, whereas a director can re-visit each and every moment of a story ad nauseam in the edit bay.  Problematic moments disappear.  Great moments are unearthed or even manufactured. 

     Ms. Witherspoon described such an editorially fabricated motif in ELECTION.  She was surprised, upon viewing the film for the first time, to see freeze frames of her goofiest, most awkward facial expressions peppered throughout.  Together, Alexander Payne and editor Kevin Tent, A.C.E. had combed footage for the actress’s silliest looks, some lasting only a tiny fraction of a second.  Then they froze these shots and lingered on them during dialogue scenes, thereby establishing the story’s comical tone and, at the same time, commenting on Ms. Witherspoon’s character.

     During his acceptance speech, Mr. Payne spoke not just about creating humorous moments during post-production, but about Mr. Tent himself -- glowingly and with great warmth and wit.  He made it clear that respect, trust and (yes) love, are cornerstones of his relationship with his editor.  This public acknowledgement of the intimate connection between director and editor made us smile the Ravi Shankar smile again.  In post-production, we’re together 50 hours or more per week for months on end, and we become as close as family.

     Clint Eastwood expressed similar high regard and affection for his cutter, Joel Cox, A.C.E., when presenting the trophy for career achievement in feature film editing.  “My theory,” Mr. Eastwood said, “is surround yourself with good people and let them make you look good.”  He continued, “If it isn’t relaxing and fun to do, there’s no reason to be doing it at my stage.” 

     The esteemed actor/director also spoke nostalgically about working with Mr. Cox, years ago, on upright moviolas.  Today, of course, they use a digital system.  For Mr. Eastwood, the newer technology provides more creative freedom.  His editor will suggest things, “and I’ll say, ‘Sure, try it.’  Now with Avid, it’s so much faster and you can put it together two or three different ways.” 

     Accepting the Eddie from his director, Mr. Cox expressed pride in editors who began their careers as apprentices and assistants in the Eastwood cutting rooms.  His remarks brought to mind how important it is to learn from masters of the craft, as Mr. Cox himself did.  The ready availability of editing software hasn’t diminished the need for traditional apprenticeship one iota.  To be sure, one can figure out which keys to hit on one’s own.  But truly understanding why to cut to a close-up, for instance, and at precisely which instant, can only come from watching and listening to accomplished directors and editors at work.

      The hundreds of decisions made in an edit suite each day require precision and subtlety, a fact acknowledged by award presenters and recipients alike.  In the world of film editing, one frame more or less – a twenty-fourth of a second – can be the difference between clarity and vagueness, between laughter and deafening silence, between rapt attention and boredom.  And only those who have toiled in cutting rooms truly get this.

      Awarding Kevin Tent the Best Edited Feature Film (Dramatic) trophy for his work with Mr. Payne on THE DESCENDANTS underscored the vital and primary importance of editing precision in bringing the best of an actor’s work to the screen.  Their film is a dialogue-driven relationship drama, and that fact resulted in a huge Ravi Shankar smile.  For editors know that an engaging performance in a given scene almost never comes from an uncut recording of a single good take.  Great performances are carefully pieced together in the cutting room -- sometimes a word or two at a time -- from many different takes.  This is what Mr. Tent’s award was about.

     Of course, all the nominees in for Best Edited Feature Film (Dramatic) built performances the same way.  HUGO, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, MONEYBALL and WAR HORSE showcase great acting because they were edited with precision and subtlety, combining superlative moments from an array of takes to create magical, mesmerizing performances.

     The same is true of nominees for Best Edited Feature Film (Comedy or Musical).  MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, MY WEEK WITH MARYLIN, BRIDESMAIDS and YOUNG ADULT all deserve the acclaim they’ve gotten.  In singling out the work of Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius’s on THE ARTIST, A.C.E voters recognized not only the power of editing to bring out the best from actors, writers and directors, but the fact that this picture’s editors did so without dialogue and sound effects – tools on which we normally rely quite heavily.

     Documentaries, which don’t use professional actors or scripted scenes, of course, present editing challenges unlike those that arise in feature films.  Because a doc’s dramatic moments aren’t scripted, they must be created in the cutting room.  The same is true of non-fiction story structure. 

    Choosing Lewis Erskine and Aljernon Tunsil’s work on FREEDOM RIDERS for the Eddie, then, hailed them as storytellers.   Nominating David Tedeschi for LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD, and Joe Bini and Maya Hawke for CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, did the same.  Hailing their work again made us smile a` la Ravi Shankar and Allah Rakha, because we know documentary editors to be writers, not “technicians,” as the general public often sees them.

     Like non-fiction film, television makes unique demands on editors.  True, tv shows require precision in editing and performance construction just as features do, but cutting for the small screen is done with much tighter schedules, taking weeks instead of months.  Sometimes, in fact, a half hour show only has days between the end of shooting and its airdate.

     That’s why, again smiling the Shankar smile, we applaud all the television editing winners and nominees, particularly Doug Ibold, A.C.E., recipient of the career achievement Eddie for television editing. His work on MIAMI VICE was groundbreaking across all audio-visual media.  That, and his editing on such shows as MAGNUM, P.I., QUINCEY, M.E., LAW AND ORDER and LAW AND ORDER, S.V.U. have become part of the fabric of American pop culture’s history. 

     All the 2012 nominees and winners are to be congratulated!  And thanks are in order as well:  to A.C.E.’s peerless executive director, Jenni McCormick,  who produced the awards dinner, and to all who worked behind the scenes to make the evening a huge success.  Thanks, also, to the evening’s host, actor/comedian Patton Oswalt.  Mr. Oswalt seemed truly amazed at the fast pace of the presentations.  But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise; editors have no patience for scenes that go longer than they should.


Friday, January 20, 2012


January 20, 2012

     Josh Radnor’s LIBERAL ARTS is the sixth film I’ve edited to be chosen as an Official Sundance Selection.  But screening at the festival is not something about which one becomes jaded.   This year’s trek to Park City is as exciting as my earliest sojourn to the event, first described to me in 1984 as “a thing Redford puts on where you ski all day and watch movies all night.”

     LIBERAL ARTS will have its world premiere at the Eccles Theatre, Sundance’s largest and most prestigious hall.  The venue is named after a Republican Mormon banker, George S. Eccles, and his wife, Dolores.  George, with his brother Marriner, founded The First Security Corporation in 1928.

     But the Eccles brothers were nothing like today’s higher profile Republican Mormons.  George and Dolores were most proud of their philanthropy, particularly their funding of arts programs.  Marriner, though a member of the GOP, was invited to Washington by FDR to help shape the New Deal.

     The latter Mr. Eccles, you see, had written, in his 1931 work, Beckoning Frontiers, that:  “As mass production requires mass consumption (there must be) a distribution of wealth… to provide men (sic) with buying power.”  He argued that The Great Depression was caused by concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands.  Only by increasing the general population’s purchasing power could economic recovery come about.  Demand for products, not tax breaks for the obscenely wealthy, would create jobs.

     How strange to sit and watch independent cinema in a theatre funded by a family that reminds us that being Republican (and Mormon) didn’t always mean advocating greed as a socio-economic panacea!  Indeed, the fact that Marriner Eccles was a Federal Reserve Bank chairman and a participant in the Bretton Woods negotiations that led to creation of both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – a conservative c.v., to be sure – suggests how far right the political spectrum itself has shifted.  Today, Eccles would be considered ultra-liberal.  A Republican Mormon socialist!

     Perhaps in the near future Sundance will feature an independently produced documentary about the Eccles family.  Seeing it in the theatre that bears their name would be just the kind of “meta” experience for which indie films often strive.