Cutting Commentary: Reliving ‘The Future’ and Leaning Forward
by Edward Landler
photos by Peter Zakhary/Tilt Photo
Following are recaps of the second two panels at EditFest LA 2015, held in the historic Main Theatre at the Disney Studios in Burbank.
A Look Back to the Future with Arthur Schmidt
Arthur Schmidt, ACE (Back to the Future Trilogy, Castaway)
Moderated by author Bobbie O’Steen (The Invisible Cut, Cut to the Chase)
“EditFest…a great place to celebrate the art of the editor,” said moderator O’Steen, welcoming the audience back from lunch. She added, “We miss you, Randy,” in memory of longtime ACE board member, and president from 2008 to 2012, Randy Roberts, ACE, who passed away late last year.
O’Steen then introduced the subject of the session, Oscar winner — for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and Forrest Gump (1994) — and 2009 ACE Career Achievement Award winner Schmidt. She said, “Artie’s father was an editor and told him not to become an editor.”
Schmidt responded: “In order to discourage me, he would take me into the editing room.” His father, Arthur P. Schmidt, enjoyed over a career spanning three decades. Among his 60-plus credits, five were for Billy Wilder films, including Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Some Like It Hot (1959). He also earned two Oscar nominations.
Obviously, the younger Schmidt ignored his father’s advice. He worked his way up as an assistant and was strongly influenced by his experience with Dede Allen, ACE and Jim Clark. On Marathon Man (1976), he said, “Jim kept giving me more and more scenes saying, ‘Try to make it better.’ I was too busy to look over his shoulder.”
O’Steen noted, “Artie did all the running sequences in the movie and got a single-card credit as “Associate Editor,” his first credit as editor on 31 films in 29 years.”
Schmidt then described how a personal decision affected his professional career. An editor he had worked with for two years hired him as assistant on a basketball movie called The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979). The editor suddenly left to work on another film and a few veteran editors came on the project briefly and also left.
Schmidt recalled, “I just didn’t find two teams running back and forth interesting…and I was called ‘unprofessional’ when I decided to leave. I would have still been on Fish three months later when I got the call to do just the running sequences on Michael Mann’s first film — a prison movie for TV called The Jericho Mile (1979).”
The clip presented from Mile mapped out the gang relationships in the prison yard. Schmidt said, “It was the first scene and there was lots of footage. I was asked to put a story line to the sequence to introduce characters and set them up for later scenes. I ran a 30-second segment of this sequence for Mann. The next morning, the editor was fired.”
Schmidt continued, “Mann told me he’d hire someone else to do the running sequences and turned the whole picture over to me. I had to rip apart every scene the first editor had cut and reconstruct them from dailies. I thought, ‘What would Dede Allen and Jim Clark do?’ Be bold… It also helped to have ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ to edit to, though ABC didn’t want to pay for the rights.”
Arthur Schmidt and Bobbie O’Steen.
The editor won an Emmy for his work on The Jericho Mile and received an Oscar nomination for his next film, Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). He said of the latter, “The best dailies I’d ever had up to that time.”
“You trust to hold on Sissy Spacek rather than cut,” said O’Steen about the next clip, from Coal Miner’s Daughter, in which Spacek as Loretta Lynn breaks down on stage. Schmidt said, “The extras in the scene were all local residents. All they knew was that she would sing a song.”
After the clip, the editor simply said, “Thank you, Sissy Spacek,” and went on to speak of Back to the Future (1985), the first of nine movies he cut for Robert Zemeckis. While editing Firstborn (1984) for Coal Miner director Michael Apted, he ran some sequences featuring two young actors for Zemeckis who was looking for the right actor to play Marty McFly. “Bob said, ‘I don’t think either of those guys are right, but I really like the way it was edited,’” Schmidt related.
Three months later, Zemeckis gave him the script for Future and asked him to edit the movie, Schmidt’s first with special effects. The clip was Marty’s first time jump, shot on the first two days Michael J. Fox came in to replace Eric Stoltz who was let go five weeks into the shoot.
Before prepping the shoot, the editor sat in a meeting with Zemeckis, visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston of Industrial Light & Magic, and the executive producers, including Steven Spielberg. When the producers asked what the time jump would look like, Schmidt said, “Bob and Ken just looked at me and I winged it, ‘Oh, sparks, flaming tires...’”
Arthur Schmidt and Bobbie O’Steen.
On Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, said O’Steen, “Zemeckis called Artie to come in to record the voices of the film’s opening cartoon and edit it with only the voices.” Schmidt went on, “I put blank film on the Kem table along with the sound. Supervising sound editor Chuck Campbell came in with sound effects. We gave it to animation director Richard Williams. It took the animators a year to do the cartoon while I worked on the rest of the film.”
Jessica Rabbit’s musical number in the toon nightclub was screened for the audience. Schmidt said, “We shot the scenes with live actors doing the action with a live dancer as Jessica. Then we matched plates over the movements of the dancer and turned it over to animation.”
There were no animated characters in the movie when Schmidt cut it. He said, “I asked to have eight frames at the end of each scene for safety. ‘Absolutely no,’ they said. Cutting a scene was like cutting negative. Five or six times I’d be editing for three to four weeks in LA, then I’d fly to London to talk to the animators and then fly back to LA. It was a joy to go to work.”
About Forrest Gump, Schmidt said that after shooting the early scenes, the director asked Tom Hanks to tone down his performance, but he did not re-shoot anything. “The first cut of the film was three hours long, and we were able to cut out some of the earlier sequences with Hanks,” the editor recalled.
With time running out for this segment of the program, three more clips were shown without further commentary but all clearly demonstrated the enduring artistry of Schmidt’s editing: Forrest’s rescue of Lieutenant Dan in Gump, the hilarious dinner scene in Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage (1996) and the airplane crash in Zemeckis’ Castaway (2000).
John Venzon, left, Dody Dorn, Norman Hollyn, Vashi Nedomansky and Doug Blush.
The Lean Forward Moment
Doug Blush, ACE (20 Feet from Stardom)
Dody Dorn, ACE (Memento)
Vashi Nedomansky (That Which I Love Destroys Me)
John Venzon, ACE (South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut)
Moderated by editor, author and Head of the USC School of the Cinematic Arts Norman Hollyn, ACE
For the day’s final panel, moderator Hollyn asked each of the editors to present a sequence from a movie that they did not edit, and to explain how this “scene inspired them and continues to inspire them.” He invited the audience to text him with their questions during the session.
Venzon, who works primarily in animated features, introduced a scene from Airplane! (1980), edited by Patrick Kennedy, ACE. He said, “It informs every single comedy I edit.”
After the clip, he explained, “They know how to do the joke without being jokey. When you focus on character, it lasts longer. As long as no one breaks character, it holds the audience. The editors are the first audience, and you as the editor have to guard the joke. My mentor, Michael Tronick [ACE], told me, ‘As an editor, we’re getting paid for our opinions; since they are paying you for your opinions, don’t waffle.’”
Asked by Hollyn about the movie’s use of sound and music, Venzon noted that Elmer Bernstein scored it as “a really serious movie.” He also pointed out that whenever they cut to the outside of the jet, you heard a propeller sound: “It took me a while to realize it was a joke.”
The last five minutes of Thelma and Louise (1991), edited by Thom Noble, was Dorn’s choice for the session. She introduced it with a quote by the film’s author, Callie Khouri: “I was accused of being a toxic feminist. All I can say is, ‘Kiss my ass.’”
Describing how she selected this movie, Dorn told of an editor friend with a huge VHS collection who always watches two movies on two monitors. She said, “I happen to walk by to see the end of Thelma and Louise. There was no sound and I was riveted…the sound effects fall away and you go into an emotional bubble…and you identify with the cop played by Harvey Keitel who doesn’t think of them as bad guys but as victims.”
A text message question came in about how editors prepare for a film. Dorn first reads the script three or four times to judge the editing needs. Then, she said, “I talk with the director and then we both know if we can work together. Michael Tronick was right and whoever hires me knows they’re getting an opinionated person.”
After he reads the script, Nedomansky wants to point out to the director something that really excites him about it. He said, “Working with a director, you want to get that…what’s that word?” Dorn completed the sentence with “synergy,” and he nodded vigorously.
Asked what non-editing media things the editors gain inspiration from, Venzon replied, “Seeing live music as much as possible, performing, connecting to an audience. It’s a reminder of what we’re doing in super slow motion.”
Norman Hollyn, left, Doug Blush, Dody Dorn, Vashi Nedomansky and John Venzon.
Nedomansky, who played professional hockey for 10 years before becoming an editor, said, “Exercise, playing hockey.” He then introduced his choice, Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), edited by David Moritz.
The scene follows Bill Murray and Owen Wilson in a helicopter as it crashes into the ocean. After floating in the water through random flashes of red and white, they appear walking on a beach. “All the little things that we as editors try to find are essential here to making the film work,” said Nedomansky.
The moderater asked what the tricks were that an editor uses to help remind him of those things. Nedomansky said, “I always remember the things I want to remember with markers. Later I go through and see what choices I made. They’re sitting there like mushrooms in a forest.”
Working mainly in docs, Blush noted, “It’s a slightly different craft in documentaries; a documentary can be made completely in the editing room. You get the raw footage and you begin to see characters you haven’t thought of before. Sometimes you find things at the last minute.”
Dorn said she reviews the footage over and over, making notes and dropping locators, but, “The volume of material has gone up so much, it’s a different process going through it. On the first day of shooting Fury , I got 10 hours from six or seven cameras; it took me three or four days just to log it. I like to organize it myself — that’s when I learn the material.”
Giving a shout out for assistant editors, Blush said, “They have saved my ass any number of times; they go through so much for us.” Venzon agreed: “For Storks [in pre-production for a 2016 release], Emma Dupell just spent three weeks going through so many sound sub-clips — and there was no script, all improvised.”
To introduce the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona (1987), edited by Michael R. Miller, ACE, Blush said, “On the way over here, I knocked over a convenience store.” After the audience saw Nicolas Cage doing it, he said, “The cuts are right where they’re supposed to be. I’m fascinated by simultaneity. Nic Cage, Holly Hunter, the dogs, the cops, the convenience store guy… each has his own arc in the sequence. There’s not a wasted frame.”
Hollyn asked what devices he uses to stay in the moment. Blush replied, “You can use directionality, and we use a lot of time-jumping in documentaries.”
Blush also touched on the issue of preview screenings, which was raised during the first session: “On Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground (2015), about rape on college campuses, we had 20 to 25 screenings, never the same people twice. When you’ve looped the entire audience of LA, you’ve got it.”
With the discussion running overtime, Hollyn simply asked, “What do you want people to take away from this?” Venzon answered for everyone, directly and to the point: “Not verbalizing the point of a scene. Trust the audience. We show them the pieces; they’ll put it together.”
Edward Landler is a filmmaker, media educator and film historian. He made I Build the Tower, the definitive feature documentary on the Watts Towers, and is currently writing a cultural history of film. He can be reached at email@example.com.