With more than 40 films to his credit, spanning genres from comedy to suspense and sci-fi, Oscar-winning editor Paul Hirsch has much to offer in counsel to younger filmmakers as he visits Camerimage Film Festival for his award for “unique visual sensitivity.”
Having jumped into editing with no formal training on 1970’s “Hi, Mom!” for Brian De Palma, soon leading to work with George Lucas on the first “Star Wars” film – for which he won an Oscar along with Marcia Lucas, and Richard Chew – Hirsch says he’s always focused on rhythm and the structure of music as guiding forces in his work.
“Music and film are the only art forms where time is involved,” he says. “There are rhythms involved in architecture and poetry, of course. And I suppose dance is sort of grafted onto music.”
The graduate of the High School of Music & Art and a native New Yorker has employed his sense of staccato and counterpoint in 1984’s “Footloose,” three John Hughes films including “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” and in such darker fare as “Falling Down” for Joel Schumacher, and Taylor Hackford’s “Ray.”
Throughout, Hirsch recalls, it’s always been about temporal concerns: “It has to occupy a certain amount of time.”
Although, increasingly, feature films clock in at over two hours these days, Hirsch confesses he feels the movies have gone astray in other ways.
“I feel my time is passing,” Hirsch says. “I feel I came along at the right time. I’m very unhappy with the state of the movie business at this point – these endless superhero movies and so much time and money spent on fantasies. They kind of bore me.”
Fight sequences ad infinitum may involve complicated edits but Hirsch finds them deeply unrewarding.
“Everyone was raving about ‘Wonder Woman’ earlier this year and I thought it was such a bore.”
Forces of globalization are driving the shift in focus to action over story and characters, Hirsch believes. “It’s all about chasing the money. China is a huge market now, probably bigger than the United States. So they’re looking for things that won’t get lost in translation – things that visually sell better overseas.”
American actioners are also more profitable domestically, he says, because they’re easily marketed to teenage boys, “the most easily manipulated” audiences.
The trend has its roots in some of his most celebrated work, Hirsch admits.
As someone who shaped “Star Wars” in 1977, he confesses he had an inadvertent role in the discovery that an action-packed film with a comic-book feel can prove immensely profitable.
“I feel I’m complicit in the destruction of the business,” he says. And now “they try to hit a home run with every swing.”
The vast grosses also demonstrated that a relatively unknown cast is no hindrance to cosmic success, Hirsch says.
“Movie stars don’t bring people in – franchises do. And they all want to recreate a ‘Star Wars,’ a ‘Fast and Furious,’ a whatever it is.”
Still, Hirsch has fond memories of working with Lucas at a time when all the smart money said there was no future in sci-fi and the director was comfortably outside the Hollywood machine, based in his studio in Northern California.
“It’s counter to the narrative of Hollywood being this terrible, backbiting, competitive Hobbesian world. In fact my career’s been marked by extraordinary generosity and kindness from other people.”
Hirsch and his wife were guests at the Lucas home, he recalls, while he and Lucas’ wife, Marcia, worked on editing “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope,” as it later was renamed.
Reflections on the time, along with sharply observed war stories of life in the industry, have been chronicled in a book Hirsch has now completed (“I’m permanently editing it.”)
As for whether editing in print presents as many challenges as in film, he says, “I think the difference is, I’m not as concerned about length in a book – you don’t have to read the whole thing at once.”
Accounts in the book illustrate what editors gain from directors with markedly different styles and focus.
“De Palma’s very visually oriented,” Hirsch says, reflecting on the baroque setups used in the bloody prom scene climax of 1976’s “Carrie.”
“In terms of storytelling, George Lucas is extraordinarily gifted in terms of design. De Palma’s very interested in how he moves the camera,” with elaborate tracking shots and set pieces that flew apart to accommodate them.
“While in ‘Star Wars’ I don’t think the camera ever moves within the visual-effects sequences.”
And shots of live actors used mainly just pans across the set, Hirsch recalls.
Although friends have praised the still unpublished project, Hirsch is wary of those who can’t be objective, arguing that Hollywood sometimes falls prey to that trap.
“I don’t think these ‘friends and families’ screenings are very meaningful – I want to hear what the enemies and strangers have to say.”
Camerimage, which opened Saturday, runs through Nov. 18.