We spoke about a wide range of editing topics. Paul asked me to watch one of his early films, Obsession; so we started our discussion there.
(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)
(Also, I almost always post ONLY images and videos that have been cleared by the copyright owner. For some of these images from older movies, if I did not have time to clear these and if am infringing on your copyright for one of the following images, please contact me and I will delete them immediately.)
HULLFISH: I watched Obsession — which you had suggested — a lovely movie and then today I watched Mission: Impossible. Same editor, same director – but two very different films.
HIRSCH: Well, they were made 20 years apart, and completely different genres.
HULLFISH: Looking at the year of release, was Mission: Impossible your first on Avid or had you done one or two before that?
HIRSCH: Mission: Impossible was the first picture I did using computers. The early 90s was when the big changeover happened, and it was on Lightworks, not Avid.
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Lightworks interface (from Thelma Schoonmaker’s edit of Silence.
HULLFISH: Watching dailies is really interesting to me, and since you obviously have come from a place of watching dailies on film could you talk to me a little bit about the difference between watching dailies from the film days to the NLE days?
HIRSCH: It used to be that dailies were shown in a theater every day. The DP would be there, the director, a producer usually, and sometimes — depending on the scene — you might have the costume people and makeup people come to see what their work looked like on screen.
There’s something about the meeting of all those minds in one place in one room at one time that helps solve problems. You can discuss things. “What are we doing tomorrow about this?” and so forth. Now dailies are distributed online. They’re streaming and everybody looks at it individually and at their own pace and so I guess it’s more convenient for everyone else. It’s a phenomenon happening all over, people working in silos.
I feel fortunate to have had my career at a point in the development of the business that was more respectful of the contributions that the various crafts people were bringing to the process. Happiness for me is always proportional to the amount of discretion and autonomy that I have.
HIRSCH: It was expensive to develop and print. So there was a limit as to how many takes Brian (director, Brian De Palma) was allowed. He could make an exception, but usually not. And he doesn’t cover. He has a very particular idea of the action and the choreography of the camera and how they relate and the blocking the camera and it doesn’t allow for coverage. It’s a shot designed to be in a particular place. I found, working with Brian, I could look at his dailies and know what he had in mind, just from the design of the dailies. And he liked working with me because when he looked at what I’d edited, he’d say, “Yeah that’s what I wanted.” So I wasn’t micromanaged but I still was able to deliver what he wanted.
HULLFISH: And that’s because the intent — when you’re watching the dailies — there were shots that when you watched them on the screen — at least as an editor — I thought that shot at that moment was probably the only thing that you ever considered because Brian shot them in a very specific way and the camera movement revealed things and you probably thought, “Why would I ever break that up with coverage?”
HIRSCH: One of the editor’s tricks is to use each angle only once. That way the impression is created that it was intended for just that moment, even if it was a choice made in the editing rooom. When Tom Cruise breaks into the CIA in Mission: Impossible, the action is taking place in the vault as well as outside the vault. So the daiies are less specific. Finding the right continuity is the tricky bit.
HIRSCH: The vault scene has no music.
HULLFISH: I didn’t realize that!
HIRSCH: Breaking into the CIA is absolutely silent and Brian wanted to take EVERYTHING out. Gary Rydstrom — who’s the sound editor — had put in a little squeak for the wheel that the rope goes though as Ethan descends into the vault and Brian said, “No, no! Get rid of it.” They wouldn’t have a squeaky wheel. They would have taken care of that. So there are hardly any sound effects and absolutely no music.
So I went back and I looked at North by Northwest and saw the same thing with the crop dusting scene. That whole scene — If you say to people, “Do you remember the music in that scene?” They’ll say, “Oh yeah. It was fantastic!” Well, there isn’t any. No music at all. You hear the cropduster as it comes by and Cary Grant dives into the dust and it comes after him again and then this tanker truck comes out on the highway and he goes to the highway to stop it and the plane crashes into the truck and the whole thing explodes. That’s where the music comes in.
HULLFISH: Herman did the score for Obsession as well.
HIRSCH: Yes, yes. I think a lot of the power of the ending — I saw it recently after many, many years. I don’t watch my films because when you get to the end of a film you’d rather put your eyes out than see it one more time. When you wait 40 years to see it again, it looks different. It played a little slower than I’d remembered. I knew it was slow, but I’m looking at through today’s eyes and that’s different from back then. But what really worked for me was the ending. Really emotionally powerful. And I think a lot of that comes from the music.
HULLFISH: Did you temp music in at all?
Obsession was interesting from an editorial standpoint because when we finished the picture and the producer shopped it around — it was an independent production — he couldn’t get anybody to pick it up. He showed it to all the studios and they all turned it down.
There was a wedding sequence in the original cut of the film. (SPOILER ALERT). It turns out that Cliff and Genevieve are father and daughter, so the studios went, “Oh my God! We can’t put this out.” Incest is a taboo they would not violate.
HULLFISH: That is a fascinating story.
HIRSCH: Changing one shot changed the whole reaction to the film.
HULLFISH: The pace of Obsession was very deliberate, but there were two places where it definitely picked up: one was a fast sequence in the back-and-forth between Bujold’s eyes and the eyes of a painting she’s looking at. And then the other one was, of course, the climax at the airport.
HULLFISH: Yes. I loved it.
HIRSCH: I have to point out to you, Steve, that this was back in the day when you couldn’t scroll a shot. So you had to cut it so that it didn’t feel like you were backing up or jumping ahead. It had to feel like one continuous motion even though you’re going back and forth between the two shots. I wanted it to feel like one long zoom — the two would comprise one long zoom. It would have been a lot easier on an Avid because if you cut short or too deep, you could roll the shot or just trim it.
HULLFISH: And you would not get that frame back.
HIRSCH: Right. So if you wanted to extend a shot because you had cut it too short, your assistant would need to put a frame of black leader to make up for the frame you had dropped, to keep the length consistent with the sound and with the picture negative. The studio would count the number of black frames in your work print, and if you had too many black frames, that wasn’t good!
I mean, obviously it’s better to have a perfect film rather than a perfect work print, but I used to pride myself on not having too many unnecessary splices.
HULLFISH: Is there anything else that you bring with you from your film background to non-linear in that you are better able to see the scene in the dailies or see the structure of a scene without putting it together?
HIRSCH: I think I always had an ability to do that. It’s hard for me to separate 50 years of experience from having worked in film. I don’t know how much that played into it or not.
My first picture came out in 1970. My first computer film was 1995 so my career has been 25 years on film and almost 25 years on the computer.
HULLFISH: There’s a great long pan at the memorial tombstone at Pontchartrain Memorial Park in Obsession.
HULLFISH: I was thinking of it as needing that time just for the audience to absorb what’s happened in the scene before it, which is very emotional.
HIRSCH: Yeah. In any story, you need time for things to land. You need time for the audience to get things. A lot of my work now is being called in to help pictures that aren’t working. Often it’s a question of the moments not landing because they go too fast. Sometimes you have to slow down. If the audience is confused, they’ll turn off and they’ll get bored. So even if it’s fast cut, it doesn’t mean that you’re engaging their interest. It’s important to slow down and let the moments land that need to land. Then the audience will be MORE engaged even though the pace is slower.
HIRSCH: Because there is an interesting story about the editing. The first cut was three hours and 45 minutes. The final film is 90 minutes.
HIRSCH: So we actually took out more than we left in. But to put it in a context that editors will appreciate — they shot for eighty-five days. John would shoot without cutting the camera. And this was shot on film. So if he was doing a close-up, he would do a reset and there’s no slating or anything, just, “Okay do it again. Pick it up from here.” Finally, somebody would yell, “Runout!” And they’d have to stop and reload. I went down to the set one day and I asked the script supervisor how we were doing that day. She said, “Not good.” I said, “Why?” She said, “The master lasted 14 minutes.” I said, “How can that be? The camera only holds it 11 minutes of film.” She said, “We did a pickup.”
And then there was the coverage: there was a front shot of the cab, and you see the cab driver in the foreground and Steve and Candy in the back seat. So there’s a thousand feet of that. Maybe two takes, 2,000 feet. And then every take of every shot I’m describing to you was a thousand feet without stopping. So we had a front wide shot, then a front close up of the driver, then front close ups of Steve and Candy. They had a raking 2 shot of them one way an a raking 2 shot the other way. Then they had a tighter raking shot both ways. Then they had a close-up shot from the rear, of the cab driver turning around and looking into camera as if he was addressing them. And then there were details all of the decorations in the taxi. It was decorated like a Philippino taxi cab. So we had forty thousand feet of film for a scene that — in the script — was less than half a page. I had to hire another editor and just say, “This is yours. Go work on this.” In the end, the scene turned out to be exactly as originally written.
HIRSCH: Well I wouldn’t say ad-libbing. It was John writing new lines and feeding them to the actors.
They shot for 85 days. There was a threatened directors’ strike that year and principal photography had to be done by June 30th because that was the deadline for the strike. We’d go to dailies each day for 4 months and often we’d see three hours of dailies. One day I turned to the crew and said, “We just watched more dailies in one day than the whole film can run.” And that went on for 17 weeks!
HULLFISH: And this was back in the day of actually shooting film!
HIRSCH: Film. Yeah. So we finish the shoot on June 30th. John immediately goes on vacation for two weeks, while I worked on the first cut. By that time there were four of us cutting. Two of my assistants, Peck Prior and Adam Bernardi and another editor Andrew London. So we got the cut together. The studio is going nuts because we are booked into 4000 theaters for November 9th. It’s a Thanksgiving theme movie and we have to meet the deadline. So now we’re in July, and we have to be mixing in October, right?
HIRSCH: So, John comes back from vacation and we sit down at the KEM and we start going through it. He says, “Okay let’s take this out. Let’s take this out.” He had obviously given it some thought. There was a whole subplot we dropped about Steve’s wife not believing that he was really with Candy. She thought he was carousing with women.
HULLFISH: I was going to ask you about that exact thing. Because there are shots of the wife that are still in the movie that made me think that there was more to her story.
HIRSCH: There were scenes of her and her mother talking about the marriage. I went through this with John and he was like, “Take it out. Take it out. Take it out.” And we got through one pass on the KEM and now we’re down to two and a half hours. We took out a third of the movie in one pass.
HIRSCH: I turned to John and said, “You know, we just cut out 28 days of shooting.” He just shrugged. What are you going to do? So we keep cutting and we get it down to two hours around Labor Day. We go for our first preview and I am supremely confident. I am sky high, thinking this is one of the funniest movies ever made. And people started walking out of the screening! I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I was completely blindsided and I thought, “How could this be?” We regrouped and we took some time out and screened it again.
Now we’re in the first week of September. To make a long story short, we previewed nine times in the month of September, turning around twice a week. This was on film with a new mix for each preview. And it wasn’t till the fourth preview that we figured out what the problem was, which was that we’d thrown out a subplot about Candy’s and Steve’s credit cards getting mixed up. We thought it was too complicated so we just got rid of all of it. Without that, the audience thought that Candy was using Steve — getting him to pay for everything. He was a freeloader so they started hating him. They hated Steve for being so easily manipulated. So they soured on both characters. So we found a moment at one of the train stations where Candy tells Steve, “Give me your address and I’ll send you some money.” When we put that back in, that was it. It just turned everything around. They stopped hating Candy and they stopped hating Steve.
HULLFISH: These are incredible stories!
HIRSCH: Well, I’ve written a book entitled “A Long Time Ago In A Cutting Room Far Far Away.”
HULLFISH: I’ll be buying that book!
HIRSCH: It’s being published by the Chicago Review Press November 5th. These stories are in the book.
HULLFISH: I will love to read those in greater detail. I also noticed that you used various noises in that movie almost as punctuation like there would be a joke and then to kind of get ourselves out of the joke like a snowblower so something would happen and then there would be a cut to a Chicago snowblowing scene — like a moment for the audience to maybe laugh or setup to the next joke. To me, there were sounds that acted as like grammatical punctuation.
HIRSCH: If you say so.
HULLFISH: Did you feel like you needed to figure out how long the audience would laugh or where you needed to leave a little breath?
HULLFISH: There were three great shots where you cut to the dog then Candy then Steve. Boom boom boom.
The punctuation I was trying to point out was, that there is a scene in the bathroom where Steve washes his face with water where Candy’s socks are soaking, then disgustedly reaches for a towel and wipes his face with Candy’s underwear, then you cut to the snowblower scene. To me, that was just a great punctuation.
HIRSCH: That first motel scene went on a really long time. Initially, it was almost 30 or 40 minutes. They had a scene when they’re lying in bed together. We kept in Candy clearing his sinuses and stuff like that and then they talk about how the bed is wet because the beer exploded. Well, they actually shot that scene. Later there’s a guy that comes in and steals the money out of Steve’s wallet. Earlier, that kid had shown up as the pizza delivery guy and put the beer on the vibrating bed.
There was one bit they did while they were lying in bed that we didn’t use — sort of a raking two shot over Steve with Candy in the background talking and Candy says, “Neil, do you know anything about mining?” Steve says, “What?” Candy says, “Coal mining. Very often they have a canary in a cage and the canary in the cage is there so that if there’s lethal gas released in the mine, the canary will die and they’ll be warned.” So Steve says, “Yeah?” Then Candy says, “Well, imagine there’s a canary in bed with us. And his name is Petey. He’s under the covers.” Steve is annoyed and says, “Yeah?” Candy says, “Well, Petey just died.”
HULLFISH: (laughing) How did that line get cut out? I have a strange piece of trivia for you about two of your movies. What’s the tie-in between Planes, Trains and Automobiles and another movie you edited, Ray?
HIRSCH: I don’t know.
HULLFISH: Both movies use the Ray Charles song, “The Mess Around.”
HIRSCH: Yes. That’s right. It’s a great sequence. In the scene after that, they’re driving the wrong way on the freeway and they see two trucks coming at them and they go in between them, there’s a moment where Steve looks over at Candy and sees him as Satan.
Steve Martin and John Candy in a photo John game to Hirsch as a gift.
HULLFISH: And it cuts to an instant of Steve as a skeleton.
HIRSCH: In addition to those two, John also had shot the interior of the cab of each of the trucks. In one was the Grim Reaper with an enormous scythe. and the other cab had an executioner with an enormous ax. We tried, but there was no way we could get it all in!
HIRSCH: Well, thank you.
HULLFISH: The intercutting and the music coming in and transitions were all so beautiful. And there must have been a billion scenes in that movie.
HIRSCH: Well, first cut was three hours and five minutes — something like that — and we got it down to two thirty-five or something and Taylor (director, Taylor Hackford) liked it long, and so he said, “Let’s preview it.” I said, “It’s still too long. All we’re going to learn is that it’s still too long.” We previewed it anyway. It played OK, but we kept cutting and got it down to 2:25, which is actually the length that it went out.
Then we had to do a two hour 15-minute version for television. We called it, “The search for time.” We got it down to 2:15. I looked at Taylor and I said, “What’s wrong with this version?” Taylor was always complaining that I always think everything is too long.
HULLFISH: Probably true, though you were saying that with your film doctor jobs, you were tending to lengthen stuff so the audience could follow along and engage.
HIRSCH: Those are just moments. Give it a breath so it will land so that you can absorb the information that’s important to absorb. But the truth is that lately, I’ve mostly focused on my book. And frankly, I’m enjoying my freedom. I do miss some of the camaraderie of the editing room and that kind of thing but on the other hand, I really like being autonomous.
HULLFISH: You’ve worked with some fantastic directors were they all very respectful of the edit process? Did they love being in the edit?
HIRSCH: They were all different. Some of them are more hands-on than others. Herbert Ross liked to be what I call “chauffered.” He didn’t want to take the wheel at alll. Others liked the pleasure of driving the car themselves. He liked to be involved but he wasn’t interested in futzing over frames. He was involved in the big picture.
Some of these stories are in the book. It’s my experiences in the business, not a how-to book. The story of my career and how I got started and how things led to where they did. And the pictures I worked on and the fabulously interesting people that I collaborated with and the set of problems that we had to solve and how we did, like swapping out the wide shot of the house in Obsession with the shot of Cliff sleeping which allowed it to get sold. My book is very personal. It’s my experience over my 50 years of editing.
HIRSCH: It’s fun. It’s I think you’ll enjoy it. Editors will particularly enjoy it.
HULLFISH: Can you tell me just about your approach to a scene?
HIRSCH: I like to have my assistants stack all the lines. Let’s say that there are lines 1 through 10 in a scene and there are two characters: John and Ann. They’ll stack all the John lines starting with the first line going from widest to tightest angle for just line 1 and then Ann has line 2 and they do the same thing with her.
So I have the lines stacked for each character in a scene so if I want to compare line readings I can go to any particular line of dialogue and see all the coverage there is on that line. It’s a shortcut because — first of all when you watch the dailies you’re very often looking for the wrong thing. If you pick stuff in dailies it’s not necessarily the best take for what you need later. Context determines everything. Seeing stuff out of context, it’s easy to make the wrong choice, so I don’t really look at dailies that carefully for performance initially. Because I know I’m going to subject each line to great scrutiny once I have context.
HULLFISH: Is that your first way that you look at dailies though is in the stacked readings?
HIRSCH: It depends how much time I have. I’ll also sometimes have them stack camera moves to compare them. It depends on the scene. I adapt my technique to the circumstances.
HULLFISH: You can easily end up with six or eight hours of dailies in a day.
HIRSCH: Yeah. So there’s no way to look at it all and still cut. Of course, when you’re working with a good director, that doesn’t happen.
I just watched The Sunshine Boys. I recommend it. It’s really beautifully shot. This shot leads to this one, and this shot leads to this one. It’s all very thought out and clear and it’s just a thing of beauty. Not to mention that it’s Neil Simon, so it’s extremely funny.
HULLFISH: I talked to one of Sally Menke’s assistant editors and she said, “We all remember, as assistants, our editors panicking at the thought of digital editing.” Was that your impression of those times of switching from Moviolas and KEMs and Steenbecks over to Lightworks and Avid? Did you dread switching from cutting film to cutting digital?
It turned out to be very easy to switch to digital because when you’re putting a cut together for the first time you basically have a handful of keystrokes that you do over and over and over. It’s not like you have to learn a lot to assemble a first cut.
HULLFISH: Ten buttons.
HIRSCH: Something like that. By the time you get to refining it then you’re sort of adept at it. It took me about a week to pick it up. It was really no big deal.
I worked on LightWorks exclusively for several years. Then I got called to help out on a picture that had been cut on Avid. You’ve got an assistant sitting next to you, and you ask them, “How do I do this? How do I do that?” I picked up LightWorks in about a week and converted to Avid in less than that.
But there was general fear. People thought, “I’m too old to learn something new.”
HULLFISH: Thank you so much, Paul. I’ve been looking forward to this interview and you did not disappoint. I can’t wait until your book comes out.
HIRSCH: November 5th.
HULLFISH: Paul thank you so much for your time today. Maybe we’ll talk again ahead of your book being released in the fall.
HIRSCH: Yes. Let’s talk again then. Good talking with you.
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors
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The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.
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