In the early 2000s, Robert Rodriguez’s office called negative cutter Mo Henry, who had worked on all the director’s movies, starting with a pro bono job on his scrappy debut, “El Mariachi,” with bad news: There would be no negatives to cut on his next pic, “Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams,” because Rodriguez had decided to go digital.
“When I saw him changing, that’s when I realized,” Henry says. “I knew then that it was going to end.”
As it happens, it didn’t end. Henry is still working — “semiretired,” she says. The skill of cutting a motion-picture negative to precisely match the film editor’s final cut is still needed — though a lot less often these days.
Two decades ago, Henry worked on more than 30 films a year. In 2001, she cut “Heist,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Training Day,” “Swordfish” and “Shrek,” among more than two dozen films. For years she did almost everything Warner Bros. and Sony put out, and handled indie films as well.
“At one point I was doing most of it,” Henry says.
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Now just a few auteur holdouts require Henry’s services. “Only the ones who are really high up in the hierarchy, whose movies make enough money that studios allow [them to shoot on film],” she says. “That’s Chris Nolan, [Quentin] Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, [Steven] Spielberg. I think that’s about it.”
These days, Henry is considered something of a specialist, coming to work in Los Angeles from her Northern California home only when something interesting comes up, like a pair of recent high-profile archival projects for Netflix: “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” and Orson Welles’ lost classic “The Other Side of the Wind.”
Henry says she hears the same thing when her name pops up in the credits of a new production. “I get so many calls saying, ‘Wow, you’re still working?’” She laughs. “The subtext, you know, is ‘Wow, you’re still alive?’”
Henry’s talents run in her family, starting with an aunt who began cutting negatives after emigrating from Ireland in the 1920s and passed on her knowledge to her children, to Henry’s father and eventually to Henry herself. “I wasn’t a huge film buff,” Henry confesses. “I really needed a job, and my dad said if you don’t work, we’re kicking you out.”
In 1992, she formed her own company, and from there began working more closely with filmmakers, getting more involved in the movies she was cutting. “That’s when I really started loving film,” she says.
Henry is extremely modest about the work she does. “I’m not an artist,” she maintains. “I’m not creative at all. I’m a craftsman.” But she takes her
job seriously — every movie she works on matters, even if she’s working on 30 at a time.
“My dad taught me that when you’re cutting a movie, you’re not just cutting a piece of plastic,” she says. “This is years of a writer’s life. This is a director’s big shot. This is an actor’s big break. It’s all the people who worked on the film and weren’t home for their families on weekends. You’re holding something really precious, and you have to show up for it, because it represents so much labor and so much love.”