For all the public’s fascination with the film business — evidenced by the ability to quote overnight box office figures, the dating histories of any number of actors or the budget overuns of “Gangs of New York” — what happens behind the front lines of filmmaking is as off the radar as it ever was. Case in point: film editing.
“A New York City cab driver asked me what I did for a living recently,” recalls Norman Hollyn, a veteran film editor and interim-head of the editing department at the USC film school. When Hollyn told him, the cab driver replied: “You’re the guys who cut out the dirty parts.”
Not exactly. But then Hollyn and his colleagues are somewhat inured to the Rodney Dangerfield aspect of their professional lives. Not for nothing were their counterparts in the sound editing branch so famously dissed by Mike Myers during the Oscarcast two years ago.
“Editing is a very complicated process,” says Mark Goldblatt (“Terminator 2” “True Lies” “Pearl Harbor”), a former prexy of the American Cinema Editors society. “But it’s also invisible.” And largely an internal process.
Observing an editor at work has the quality of watching a bulb sprout in spring. When editing guru Walter Murch (“American Graffiti,” “The Godfather Part 2,” “The English Patient”) edited 1.25 million famous feet of film into Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” he spent a lot of time thinking about his next move.
Since its founding 53 years ago, ACE has attempted, among other things, to educate the public and the rest of the film industry as to what editors really do. Depending on whom you talk to, that knowledge base in 2003 is wider than it was, the same as it was or worse than ever.
“What editors do is still the biggest kept secret in the industry,” says Tina Hirsch, currently in her second term as ACE president. And that even extends to some in the directing ranks, though she’s naming no names.
“When you run a cut for a director they often have no idea how what they are seeing got to be that way,” Hirsch says.
Which doesn’t mean, she hastens to add, that the majority of helmer-editor relationships aren’t built on a mutual respect for what each does. Steven Spielberg and Michael Kahn, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Murch and Coppola are just three examples of enduring partnerships.
“While there are directors who are afraid to give away any power, the good ones know that an experienced editor is an integral part of finishing a film,” says Lillian Benson (“Soul Food”), a recent addition to the ACE board.
As with many entertainment orgs, the high point of the year for many ACE members is not so much the Oscars but the org’s inhouse kudofest known as the Eddie Awards (“Eddie” is the nickname for the ACE statuette).
There’s no red carpet, no media and not a lot of outsider interest. But that’s sort of beside the point, Benson says.
“The first time I went to the show in 1990 it reminded me of why I got into the business in the first place. You spend so much time as an editor in a room with an Avid by yourself that it’s good to see what others are doing and re-emphasize that we’re part of the larger film community.”
In the past, at least one-third of Eddie winners have gone on to win the big kahuna on Oscar night. This year’s Eddie nominees Peter Boyle (“The Hours”), Michael Horton (“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”), Schoonmaker (“Gangs of New York”) and Martin Walsh (“Chicago”) are all Oscar contenders.
To further up its profile, longtime editor Alan Heim (“Network,” “All That Jazz”) and doc-maker Susan Apple are making “The Cutting Edge: The Story of Cinema Editing.” The film will be the editing version of the well-received “Visions of Light” doc of the mid-1990s, which chronicled the craft of Hollywood’s foremost lensers. As well as some top editors, helmers Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and others will reportedly participate in the film.
Perhaps one day soon, William Hornbeck (“A Place in the Sun,” “Giant,” “It’s a Wonderful Life”), whom AMPAS voted the greatest film editor of all time in 1984, will become, if not a household bit of trivia, at least a reference any director worth his salt will get.