My first job was running the shipping room at Dynamic Films, an industrial film house in NYC. After 2 weeks there, I had met a negative cutter who was looking for a trainee, so I gave 2 weeks’ notice. After 6 months, I had learned all about the technical side of the business, how to cut and prepare negative for printing, as well as how to thread and operate a Moviola. I then became an assistant editor to a trailer editor named Chuck Workman. He had more work than he could handle, so I started cutting the little projects he didn’t have time for. The first one was cutting a 3 1/2 min. version of a 10 min. featurette, a making-of promotional film for United Artists on The Thomas Crown Affair. I then cut one from scratch for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and then started cutting trailers.
What got you interested in film editing in the first place?
I visited an editing room, and became fascinated by the tools. I wanted to learn how to operate them. And I had been at a Columbia University program in Paris, and had seen Citizen Kane for the first time at the Cinematheque there. I was absolutely transfixed. The passion and enthusiasm of the French for film and particularly American film excited my interest in film as a medium.
How did you get approached to work on Star Wars: A New Hope?
My brother Charles produced Greetings, a comedy directed by Brian De Palma, and came to me for the trailer. He and I hit it off, and he hired me (at my brother’s urging), to cut the sequel, Hi, Mom!. I then cut his next four films, and came to the attention of Brian’s friends, who included Marty Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Marcia Lucas was cutting Taxi Driver for Scorsese, and when they needed help, called me to work on it, but the studio nixed it. Then, the following year, they again needed help, this time on Star Wars, and called me in. The studio went along and the rest is history.
How did you approach the task of editing the first Star Wars movie?
I was given a scene to re-cut, the robot auction where Luke’s uncle buys R2-D2 and C-3PO, and changed it to more closely match my sensibility. George liked my work, so I went on to the next. Richard Chew would be working on one reel, and I would leap-frog onto the next and so on. Marcia was buried in assembling the end battle.
You were one of the first people that saw Star Wars. What did you think of the movie back then? And could you have guessed it would become such a big success and you would be awarded an Oscar?
I loved it, but never dreamed it would go on to be the cultural phenomenon it grew into. Brian De Palma was the first person to suggest I would win an Oscar for it. Before that, it had never crossed my mind.
How did George Lucas and Gary Kurtz ‘direct’ you? Did they have specific requests or guidelines?
Gary was not involved in aesthetic editorial decisions. George basically let me do my thing with each scene, and then would give me notes. And he consulted very closely with Marcia of course. And then at a certain point, he decided he preferred working with just one editor, and chose me to finish the film. I was the only editor on the picture over the last 5 months, during which they re-shot the Cantina sequence; R2 in the canyon, captured by the Jawas; some of the land-speeder shots; as well as the gearing-up of the planet-destroying weapon on the Death Star. It was during this period that we completed the blue-screen shots and I watched the space sequences come to life as the backgrounds were filled in.
Can you share some of your best memories regarding working on Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back?
My wife Jane was pregnant with our first child when I was cutting Star Wars, and the small film community up in Marin County could not have been more welcoming to us. They held a baby shower for us, and accepted us into their circle unreservedly. George and Marcia even gave up their ground-floor bedroom for us (and their own bed) when Jane had to have a Caesarean when Gina was born, and could not negotiate stairs. Their generosity and personal kindness was beyond anything I had experienced before, or since, come to think of it.
You didn’t get to work on the third movie: Return of the Jedi. What was the reason for this?
George had hired an English director, Richard Marquand, and Richard wanted his own editor, with whom he had worked before.
In which ways has editing evolved over the period between Star Wars and now?
Different styles have emerged due to the influence of commercials and MTV. Digital editing tools have afforded us new flexibility and creative freedom, and audiences have progressed in their understanding of unconventional story-telling. Editors and directors have learned from each other, watching new work and adapting new ideas into their own personal style.
In your career you have done Sci-fi (Star Wars), musical (Footloose and Ray), comedy (Ferris Bueller), thriller (Carrie), action (Mission Impossible); a lot of different genres. Does every genre require a different way of editing?
Not really. The intent in each is the same: to maximize the impact of the material, whether the goal is to excite the audience, scare them, or make them cry or laugh.
Of all the movies you have edited, which one are you most proud of?
Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are the most famous, so I suppose they would lead, although the most human picture I have ever done was Ray. Taylor Hackford and I were both nominated for our work on it, and it is special in my mind. But you would also have to include Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Footloose, Mission Impossible, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Falling Down, Carrie. Trying to pick one is like choosing your favorite child.
What are you doing these days? Can you tell us something about your current and future projects?
I am cutting Source Code, a sci-fi thriller/love story for Duncan Jones, the director of Moon. We are starting to have previews and I have great hopes for its success. As for the future, who knows? That’s what I love about the business: an unexpected phone call or chance meeting can suddenly change your life for the better.