Film editor Michael Kahn has been piecing together Steven Spielberg’s indelible images for nearly 40 years. The two first worked together on 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and have maintained a close relationship. Indeed, Kahn’s non-Spielberg commitments have been relatively few and far between ever since, and many of those have still had ties to the legendary filmmaker (“Poltergeist,” “The Goonies,” “Arachnophobia,” etc.). Kahn, a three-time Academy Award winner and eight-time nominee, is, along with fellow three-timer Thelma Schoonmaker, the most Oscar-laureled living editor. “Bridge of Spies” marks his and Spielberg’s 25th collaboration to date and could bring him his ninth nomination, which would extend a record in the field that he already owns.
Happy Birthday! You’re 80 years old today, is that right?
No, closer to 85, actually!
Oh surprise. The internet is wrong! Well you’re still going strong either way.
I’m still going strong and I still love editing.
What’s the secret?
I don’t know what the secret is. I started editing many years ago, and when I met Steven [Spielberg], I started getting really inspired with the work and it was a lot of fun. And he loves the editing room and I love it, too, so we became a team. I love working with him, and don’t forget: look at the great films I’ve been getting over the years.
I think of you two very much like one might think of Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese or Ron Howard and his editing collaborators, Mike Hill and Daniel P. Hanley. You’ve worked together very consistently since “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” How important has that consistency been to your work and his?
It’s wonderful, because when I’m through with a movie I try to forget it. I don’t want to carry any baggage with me from the previous movie. It’s like every time I start a movie, I’m a beginner. It’s like the first time I’m editing and it’s all new and exciting. A new world. It’s like traveling around the world, except the world of movies. And we work very well. I’ll tell you, part of the reason is that ever since I was young, I was a listener. I’m a very good listener. So when Steven talks, I listen closely. I listen to what he says and then I listen to what I think he means and then I listen to myself. And then I put a scene together, because I’m adding to it as well. And when we started doing “Bridge of Spies,” I read the script and I said, “I hope people are going to listen,” because the key is if there’s a good actor doing some good acting, you want to hear it all. You don’t want to be cutting away and interfering with somebody’s wonderful performance, and maybe an important performance. So that’s what I do. I’m a listener. I think he appreciates that. Nothing mysterious. It’s probably the greatest secret. For all the editors: instead of talking, listen.
On “Bridge of Spies,” what was the biggest hurdle? Was it trimming it down in the macro or was it a specific scene that you had difficulty honing?
Well, you say macro. I mean the macrocosmic view in the film for us is we felt it was longer than it should have been. So we went in and started giving it a haircut. We trimmed it down. We did a lot of juxtapositioning to tell the story. This is what we did until Steven felt that it was the best way we could do the story, you know. But we gave it a lot of options, a lot of possibilities. And we’d been trimming it down and working on it when I started cutting the new film, you know, “The BFG.” So we did a lot of work on it and I think it shows because the transitions are nice. We were going for that. And it’s a wonderful story. For me there’s a lot that I didn’t know about the story. I didn’t know there was a college kid that was involved with it when I was alive in the ’50s. So I learned a lot on the show.
It’s interesting because it’s almost like it’s two movies. It’s bisected, with the Soviet spy being caught and his trial, and then of course the negotiation for Powers’ release in Germany.
No, I don’t think so. We were struggling with certain scenes that seemed to be abortive. The scenes were good in themselves but we wanted to move them around. We wanted to deal with time and that’s what Steven did. We worked together and we all came up with ideas. It was a lot of fun, actually.
There’s a tone to it, which I think you can attribute to the Coens on the page, this dry sort of wit. Did that come up for you in the edit, decisions about how to present the tone?
The Coen brothers did submit a lot of good ideas and we used a lot of them. So that worked real nice. One thing about the film that really excited me the most was the patriotism. To me it was about the United States of America. When did you last see a class full of kids say the pledge of allegiance? I get a chill when I see things like that. And when he’s talking to the Supreme Court, I mean that was wonderful. That was a very long piece so of course we had to cut it a lot and it worked well.
So by most people’s measure in your field, you’re relatively new to the Avid.
Yes, the first film we did on the Avid was “The Adventures of Tintin.” Up until that time everything was with the Moviola, and he didn’t want to change.
No, I didn’t want to change, either, but now it would be difficult to go back. Because if I want a scene I just push a button and I’ve got the scene, I’ve got the plays, I’m right there. But in the past I had to ask the assistant to go to a trim box with numbers on it, pull out the trim box, pull out the scene, put it on a Moviola, run it and that kind of thing. And it took forever to make a cut.
It sounds sort of wonderful, though.
Yeah, you know something? It was wonderful. The original film, the smell of it, was great. And the feel of it. I mean we got a kick out of it. And it wasn’t bad. We did a lot of very good movies on the Moviola. And the funny thing is I worked almost as fast as what I do on the Avid. If you know what you want to do, you go toward that goal. You try to accomplish that. A lot of people might fool around with it for a while and maybe come up with an idea and play with it, you know? But if you know I want to go toward or to say this or to say that — and Steven asks me to do certain things and I would try it. And I could get there pretty quickly. But on the Avid it’s a lot easier now.
With that in mind I’m reminded of what’s going on with Quentin Tarantino’s film “The Hateful Eight” this year and trying to revive 70mm and celluloid presentation. What do you think of all of that?
I think it’s wonderful. I mean the first film I did with Steven, as you know, was “Close Encounters” and I loved it. And a lot of it was shot in 70mm for the opticals. And we had a good time with that.
You cut your teeth in TV with “Hogan’s Heroes.” What kind of principles did you learn that have stuck with you?
I learned a principle that will live with me forever. I was a new editor and my friend was the first editor that brought me in on the sixth show. And I started editing “Hogan’s Heroes” and it was fun. He helped me and all of that. Then there was one scene that he gave me, and it was a difficult scene. I couldn’t get it together right and I kept saying to myself, “if I get this together and they like it, it’s the first victory that I’ve really had as an editor.” And I worked on the scene and I worked on it and they kept throwing it back at me, “keep working on it,” you know, that kind of thing. And finally I did it. Then I said to myself, “If I can do this, my future in editing — if I can do this I can do anything.” Sometimes when I do scenes today, and the difficult scenes, I go back mentally and I say, “Listen, if I could have done that scene in ‘Hogan’s Heroes,’ I can do this scene.” I still use that.
You own the record for most Oscar nominations for a film editor with eight and you share the distinction of most wins with three. What does that kind of distinction mean to you?
I don’t want to say that I don’t think about it once in a while, but it’s there. I mean whoever thought that this guy from Brooklyn would end up doing this kind of stuff? But here I am, you know. And I don’t know. I think I’m lucky because if Steven didn’t hire me to be his editor 40 years ago, I wouldn’t have had any of this. He’s the one. He gave me the opportunity to shine in Hollywood and I learned a lot with him, and without him, I wouldn’t have gotten any of these honors.
Well, you’re a part of some significant iconography. I mean from Indiana Jones, “Jurassic Park” to “Saving Private Ryan,” I mean you are immortal, I think, in film history. That must feel amazing.
What’s amazing is how you made me feel just now! That’s wonderful. Well, you know, as I say I do one film at a time. I don’t think about the others at all. I just enjoy what I do and Steven is very uplifting.