Saturday, March 06, 2010

CUTTING ON EMOTION: A CONVERSATION WITH FILM EDITOR MICHAEL R. MILLER




On any career path there’s getting started, and then there’s getting started right. Imagine you’re a young film editor named Michael R. Miller, you’re looking to get a foothold in feature films, and like anyone just starting out in his chosen field you’re probably willing to take almost any job for the experience and the typeface on your CV. But you are Michael R. Miller, and one of your first jobs isn’t greasing the gears on the Moviola in some dank editing room as you labor on some low-rent car chase or kung fu epic. No, one of your first jobs as an assistant film editor is wrangling film ends and cataloging shots and massaging the flow of scenes beside a woman named Susan B. Morse who is editing a little film called Manhattan. Morse, who learned her craft as assistant under Ralph Rosenblum on the last two films he edited for Woody Allen (Annie Hall and Interiors), begins a long association with Allen on Manhattan, and you, Michael R. Miller, collaborate with her again for another ride on Allen’s subsequent film, Stardust Memories. You’re beginning to get a feel for editing film, especially black and white film, so it’s natural that you would find yourself on the editing staff of yet another monochrome masterpiece, the new picture by that Scorsese kid, Raging Bull. Dizzy yet? Remember, Michael, you’re just getting started.

Next, imagine that your first solo credit as film editor comes in 1982 on a short film for Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky. It’s called Split Cherry Tree, it stars Colleen Dewhurst and, oh, yeah, it gets an Oscar nomination for best live action short film. Not one to rest on your laurels, you spend the next couple of years cutting a couple more films and initiating the long, perpetual process of honing your craft and making a name for yourself.


Then picture this: One afternoon, late spring sometime in the early ‘80s, you’re out of work and walking along Broadway in New York City when you run into a friend, a sound editor by the name of Skip Lievsay who had yet to break into feature films. You exchange pleasantries and he invites you to come along to meet these two guys from Minneapolis who are shooting a low-budget feature. You could just as easily have said no, but instead you say yes, and the two of you meet the two of them in a building on Broadway between 48th and 49th called the Film Services Building. (You remember it because there’s a plaque out front commemorating Bix Biederbecke.) You and Skip walk into this little cave –like room and there they are taking break from looking at footage, Joel and Ethan Coen blowing off steam by taking whacks at each other with a divided pair of boxing gloves. They show you a scene from their upcoming debut and you leave the meeting hooked. Though your duties as an assistant editor have often involved laying down temp tracks and attending sound mixes for features and shorts, you’ve never worked sound editing in an official capacity before. Nonetheless, that’s what you and Skip do for the Coens on Blood Simple, and off you go. The Blood Simple experience, which you could have missed altogether if you’d said no on that late spring afternoon on Broadway, leads directly to lead film editing credits on Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing and a solid career moving from the Moviola to the high-tech arena of the AVID system as one of Hollywood’s sharpest, most dependable editors.

Yes, you might have to imagine all that. But Michael R. Mlller doesn’t, because it all happened to him. And now, with a resume spliced together with credits ranging from Paul Schrader’s brilliant and underrated Patty Hearst (1988) to Thomas Carter’s Swing Kids (1993), Alek Keshishian’s With Honors (1994), Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Orgasmo (1997), Luis Llosa’s Anaconda (1997), Keenen Ivory Wayans’ I’m Gonna Get You, Sucka! (1998), Rupert Wainwright’s Stigmata (1999), Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001), Anthony Hopkins’ directorial debut Slipstream (2007) and last year’s Motherhood, a comedy written and directed by ex-Village Voice film critic Katherine Dieckmann, what’s left for a seasoned film editor to do? We’ll get to that. For now, I thought it would be worth picking his brain during the last hours leading up to Oscar’s annual worldwide navel-gazing session to talk about what he looks for in Oscar-winning film editing and other sundry and fascinating topics surrounding the chosen profession he does so well. I connected up with Michael, who occasionally lectures and teaching editing at such institutions as the New York Film Academy, the American Film Institute and the North Carolina School of the Arts when he’s not on an editing gig, through a series of e-mails. We also eventually managed a sit-down at Starbucks (he went venti, I went water). So our conversation here has been cobbled together by means both technological and editorial. Whatever the medium, we enjoyed each other’s company tremendously, and I hope that ease and enjoyment translates here as I toss him 10 questions about the art and craft of film editing. Here comes the first return serve.

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DC: Since the Oscars are looming and you are an Academy member, I won't ask you what film nominated in the Best Editing category you voted for. (The choices: Avatar, District 9, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious.) But I would like to ask, what do you think the mythical monolith referred to as The Academy is looking for when nominees in this category are selected?


MM: Yeah, that mythical monolith. When you’re talking the voting body, there really is no “they.” The Academy isn’t even close to monolithic. It's composed of branches for each film craft, and the editors' branch nominates its own candidates. What's more members of the editors' branch itself have diverse tastes and standards, as this year's nominees would indicate. I'm proud of us, too, because we tend to recognize good work regardless of familiarity (or a lack thereof) with the editor who did it. No one in Hollywood knew Daniel Rezende when we nominated him for City of God.Raging Bull, Thelma Schoonmaker's first Oscar-winning effort, was, I think, her first dramatic feature film. And we were true to form this year with an editing nomination for Julian Clarke and District 9.

So what do we look for when we make our selections for Oscar candidacy? I think our criteria are the same as those we apply when editing a film. First and foremost we look at storytelling. Is the story well-told? Engaging? Affecting? Good storytelling is the editor's primary goal. Pace is also important. Avatar would not have received a nomination had its three-plus hours felt like three-plus hours. Rhythms within each scene are something cutters weigh when considering films for nomination as well.

Finally, the criterion of which the public is least aware but which is of great importance to editors is performance. Each scene in a motion picture may be shot from a number of angles, and there are multiple takes for each angle. An actor's performance, then, may be composed of many different takes seamlessly woven together by the editor. Even when big action films are nominated for Best Editing, performances in those films are often acknowledged for their excellence. What was groundbreaking in editing this year is that Avatar’s editors constructed fine performances before post-production.

DC: Are there films, based on this criterion or one of your own, that you feel would be better choices than any of the ones up for the award?


MM: I was disappointed not to see Star Trek get a nomination. I also loved Broken Embraces. And, as you know, I'm a big fan of Roderick Jaynes. Everything he touches is gold so, yeah, I would like to have seen A Serious Man get an editing nomination. Editors are a pretty collegial group, so we like to see one another rewarded for good work.

DC: It has been said that an editor can measure his success by the degree of invisibility he has to his audience. In other words, if a film editor is doing her or his job well, that work will largely go unnoticed. How would you summarize the editor's job? And what about cutting that draws attention to itself-- is that not serving the editor's call, or is it simply serving a different call?

MM: Despite our own use of the term "invisible art," I don't see invisibility as a measure of success. We apply those words to what we do because, in fact, our work isn't noticed by most viewers; it's not what they pay attention to. To me, though, good editing is no more invisible than good costume design, good lighting, good hair and make-up. A good costume designer wants to engage and move the audience without distracting them from the story. The same is true for editors and editing. Why cut from one shot to another if you don't want that choice to have an emotional impact? I see editing students trip themselves up making perfect match cuts at moments seasoned editors would never cut -- at moments where there's no dramatic motivation for a change of shot. A cut like that might be invisible, but it would also be bad.

The question of cutting that draws attention to itself is tricky. I guess I have to ask, "Whose attention is drawn, and how so?" When Yo Yo Ma plays a cello concerto, the playing is so good -- it convey the emotions and colors of the music so well -- that the attentive, trained listener is aware of the virtuoso performance. So, too, with editing. The car chase in The French Connection, the helicopter scene in GoodFellas, "Twist and Shout" in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-- virtuoso set pieces cut by three of my editing heroes -- all entertain in part because of the high quality of the cutting. But they're all edited with great pace, all in ways that advance story and reveal character. Cutting that's based on use of dazzling tricks for its own sake usually doesn't hold up.

DC: So, do you think of yourself or editors in general more as artists or craftsmen?


MM: It’s a great question, and it’s hard to answer because to give a meaningful answer is a matter of defining both terms, craft and art. I think there can be craft without art, but there can’t be art without craft. And the whole question is tricky because film is so collaborative. When you get a great script and great performances and great production design and great cinematography, your craft rises to the level of art. The Godfather is an example of craft rising through collaboration. If you bring together Francis Coppola and Mario Puzo on the script, Nino Rota writing the score, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, on and on, and (production designer) Dean Tavoularis and the great Gordon Willis lighting it all, you’re making art.

DC: There are no guarantees, of course, but with that group of people, I’d say the odds are in favor of art.

MM: And it varies from case to case. Thinking about The Godfather, is it an accretion of great craft that suddenly allows the material to ascend to the level of art? The thing is, I don’t think it is. Brando could have turned playing a pitcher of water into a work of art. And that script is so rich and works on so many levels. But everyone had to apply their craft well enough that the quality wasn’t impeded, so that it could come through. I think that we’d like to consider ourselves artists, and I think by and large it’s warranted. But, you know, for example, Alan Heim got to work on some Bob Fosse films, and Network, Sidney Lumet directing a Paddy Chayefsky script—Alan edited that.

DC: So it becomes a case of recognizing that the components are there and then drawing inspiration from them to heighten your approach to the job?


MM: For me, starting out as an assistant editor, the earliest footage I got was Gordon Willis’s brilliant black-and-white images for Manhattan. How can one not be inspired? It’s arguably one of the most beautiful black-and-white films ever made. And some slouch named Zubin Mehta conducting a Gershwin score. (Laughs).

DC: There has been a lot of talk of continuity problems in Shutter Island lately-- Leo's got a ring on in one shot, and in the reverse shot the ring is missing, that kind of thing. I haven't yet seen the film, but much was also made of apparent “gaffes” in other Scorsese films edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, including The Departed and The Aviator. And I remember bizarre things in Scorsese films that went beyond Godardian jump cuts--a scene early on in The King of Comedy features De Niro and Sandra Bernhard walking down the street and there's a strange cutting back and forth between a wider tracking shot and static close-ups. Some of it is so glaring that I’ve come to assume that continuity disruption must be intentional. Have you noticed it in his films? What do you think he and Schoonmaker might be trying to get at, assuming it is intentional?

MM: The idea that a lack of literal continuity is a gaffe, I think, comes from a old Premiere magazine column (“The Gaffe Squad”), and it betrays a misunderstanding of editing. Editors spot continuity errors long before the naive viewer. Hell, those of us who still edit material shot on film spot a speck of dirt covering 1/1000 of the frame for 1/24 of a second as the film is being projected. Here's why, in my opinion, you see a lack of literal continuity in film: Editors, working with their directors, always look for the great moments -- those that must be in the film lest we short-change the audience. Often, the road from one great moment to the next (that is, a great moment in the next shot) is bumpy in terms of continuity. Depending on the size of the bump, some editors and directors compromise. The disruption caused by the mismatch outweighs, in their view, the greatness of one of the moments and an alternate take is used. My guess is that Thelma and Marty don't compromise. And I always find it invigorating and inspiring, as an editor, to watch their work. When I was a neophyte editor, I defended a cut by saying I had "cut on motion." Andrei Konchalovsky, who had challenged the cut, said in his charming Russian accent, "Don't cut on motion, cut on emotion." Thelma and Marty cut on emotion.

DC: We've both mentioned Thelma Schoonmaker. And you worked closely with Susan B. Morse early in your career. What other editors did you look to for inspiration when you began work in this field as inspirations?


MM: I've hinted at a partial answer to this question with earlier responses. My list of editing heroes at the start of my career is a long one: Paul Hirsch, Thelma Schoonmaker, Dede Allen, Jerry Greenberg, Richard Marks, Alan Heim, Barry Malkin, Ralph Rosenblum. I had the privilege of assisting Paul and Thelma. Some of the others I got to know because the New York editing community was so small. All of them worked on projects that became my "go-to movies." Other editors whose films I learned from when starting out include Tom Rolfe, Marcia Lucas, Hal Ashby, Lou Lombardo, George Tomasini, Sam O'Steen, Robert Wise and Ralph Winters. Man, I know I'm leaving out so many greats! Also, the list of editors whose work continues to inspire and teach me keeps growing: Roderick Jaynes, Sandy Morse, Chris Lebenzon, Mark Goldblatt, Steve Rivkin and many more. I believe it's important to have heroes, to remain open to being awestruck. Anyone interested in editing should seek out and watch and study films cut by the editors I just mentioned.

DC: Is there a single sequence or film you can think of that always pops to mind when you consider examples of the possibilities attainable in great film editing?


MM: I often watch Dog Day Afternoon (Dede Allen) when I'm about to edit a film. The start of the bank robbery knocks me out every time. The whole film does. Ditto JFK (Pietro Scalia). And anything of Paul Hirsch's. I also watch Fellini and Hawks, not for cutting so much, but as paradigms of pace.

DC: Let's talk about some of the films you've edited. What's your favorite experience working on a movie?


MM: That's always a tough question. Truly, one does love them all. But to steal a neologism from Alvy Singer, I "lurved" working on Raising Arizona. The material was great and the brothers Coen were hysterically funny and warm. Youth (and the fearlessness that goes with it), Hostess Twinkies, and coffee and cigarettes fueled post-production on that. I loved editing Stigmata. It was hard work, but I was stretched by it in good ways. And to a small extent, I think we stretched what you could get away with in narrative features at the time. I loved working on Anthony Hopkins'Slipstream because it was so "out there." I must say, in the past few years I have had great experiences working with writer/ directors with whom I've become close on a personal level, with whom I've developed effective working shorthand and whose work I love. (Hi, Paul, Howard, Katherine, radzy...)

DC: Is it fair to say that you taught Roderick Jaynes everything he knows?

MM: I actually met Roderick Jaynes when he edited Blood Simple, on which Skip Lievsay and I edited sound. So Roderick was already a damn good editor when we met. We had some minor disagreements about pace on that film, if memory serves. But, in fact, I've learned much from him. The board of the A.C.E. knows I think it's long past time we invited him to join our honorary society.

DC: Where can we look for your name next?

MM: My most recent film is Josh Radnor's directing debut, HappyThanYouMorePlease. It won the Audience Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and it's excellent.

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(Michael R. Miller’s current editing project, a thriller entitled Confined starring Emma Caulfield and David James Elliott is in post-production and scheduled for release this year. He sincerely hopes for the biggest upset in AMPAS history with a sweep by A Serious Man in the Best Picture and Best Screenplay categories on Oscar night, Sunday, March 7.)

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8 comments:

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

This was a very informative, fun piece, but I'm a little puzzled as to how we're to take the references to "Roderick Jaynes" that make him sound like a real person. It's an open secret that he's not, correct?

Peet Gelderblom said...

Roderick Jaynes is a real person. In fact, he's two. And it's not like Miller never met them.

Excellent interview, Dennis!

larry aydlette said...

Very interesting, Dennis. Thanks for illuminating an area that doesn't get nearly the attention that it should.

Pablo Hernández said...

Thank you very much! As a future editor, I consider ii very very interesting.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks, Pablo. The piece was just highlighted in an online editor's journal called The Art of the Guillotine that you and everyone else might find very illuminating.

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Great interview... very enjoyable... Thanks.

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