EDITORS // Howard Smith

Interview With Editor Howard Smith

howard smith

Equally comfortable with glossy thrillers and contemplative mood pieces, Howard Smith brings his insightfulness about the aesthetics of editing to this December 1990 interview, conducted during the editing stages of the Kathryn Bigelow film POINT BREAK.

Smith: We're working fast and furious. We're about four weeks now into cutting after principal photography is finished. And we actually screened the film for the first time complete last night, which is always an interesting, exciting experience.

How did it go?

It went very, very well. We were all very, very happy. There's an enormous amount of work always to do afterwards. It's interesting putting together scenes when you're cutting the film together for the first time. At dailies, you can get a fairly good picture of how the scene is working internally in terms of its conflict and its narrative developments, etc., the character elements that are happening within the scene; but it's almost impossible to know how the thing is going to play in terms of the arc of the entire movie until you see it complete. That's always an amazing experience, to see all the interesting things that come up. Now ideally these are all things that are in the original script so in a sense if it isn't in the script it's not likely to be in that arc when you finally see that movie. Something surprising usually doesn't jump out at you unless it's something that comes out of performance or maybe a focusing of what is in the script. But usually you don't get many surprises, so that's why I feel the script is so important. If you don't have a great script I don't think you have a very good chance at having a great movie. A lot of filmmaking gets done on another principle other than that, which always confounds me.

"If there's something wrong with the script we can fix it later in the editing room"?


So what editorial work is left on the film?

Well, what you do is you refine editorially — you continue to refine in certain ways. I sort of liken it to the work a sculptor does in that the first go-round dealing with, let's say, a block of marble is to get the basic shape there, and then as you refine it you start pulling out details and start putting in those creases and the expression and you just continue to refine it until you finish. No way you can sculpt a piece and do that final work initially. So essentially that's what we're doing in the editing process. After you've gotten it all together usually there's some fat; there may be transition shots that are too long or a scene that maybe plays beautifully in and of itself but in the context of the whole movie runs a little long, and it isn't until you run the whole film that you can discern the balances that need to take place. And that's a very exciting process for me. I like all of it, but it's that refining. And coupled with that, yes, you start working with sound effects and music, and we're very fortunate on POINT BREAK; Mark Isham is doing the score.

And this happened with me once before on AT CLOSE RANGE, Pat Lenard did the score for that. [When] the composer can get started working earlier than is usual on a film, because they work with synthesizers, they were able to do rather full-sounding temp pieces for us, and we would work with them immediately against the picture, and see what would work. And Pat would be inputting immediately and go back and work on refining that material or taking it to a new direction. That was fantastic, and by the time it came to be recorded the score was really tailor-fitted to the film very nicely. Sometimes when you do a score for films the composer sees the film four weeks before you're supposed to be on the dubbing stage. And he goes away and he writes it and then you may hear a couple of little things that he'll play on the piano for you, or less. And the first time you ever hear the score is on the scoring stage, and sometimes it's not exactly what's needed. Now sometimes a very good composer will actually never be far off, and oftentimes the best composers right there on the spot will modify things. That's happened quite a number of times with me on films.

What's really great about having Mark on and working with us early is that he has now looked at quite a bit of the film and he's writing pieces and even now when we have screened last night we had quite a bit of his temp music in it. And it was thrilling because every time a piece of his came in it was just exactly right. There were a lot of spots where we had, and this is common practice when you do an early cut of the picture, you put temp music that you usually cobble together from other scores and whatever. The danger always is that you fall in love with that and nothing ever meets or beats your temp. But in fact when Mark's stuff came up it was always so right, and he's just miles ahead, so I'm very excited about him working on our score. I think it's going to be a little bit different than his other scores. I'm a big admirer of his work.

So how do you think this will be different for him?

Well, the mood of the film and the tempos are a little different than things he's worked on before. There is a kind of directness to the material that is going to be a bit of a challenge for Mark. He's done so beautifully on working with Alan Rudolph, and the NEVER CRY WOLF score, and his earlier documentary stuff which is just all exquisite. But here he's got to sort of land some more upfront kinds of action things that are I think a little new to him, and I think he's very excited by it. I think as amply demonstrated with THE MODERNS and more recent stuff that he's doing, he's really versatile.

When you saw the film last night, what did you see in it for the first time, good or bad?

Well, I keep using the word "arc" of the narrative and the arc of the characters — you may find that you latch onto a character suddenly in a scene different than the one you expected. And in modern filmmaking it's always interesting how you introduce characters into a story. The dynamics in this film are particularly interesting because its narrative drive really derives from two characters: an innocent who does not feel himself to be an innocent at all finds himself in a situation where he is seduced essentially into another world, which seems to attract him, you know — the risk factor in life and living on the edge he finds very appealing. And once he's locked into that world suddenly he finds that it isn't what it seems. There is this conflict. So that's a very interesting dynamic which carries right through the movie. And it's character driven in a sense so there's a lot of discovery happening. This is just good storytelling in a sense but you can maximize those effects of discovery where your audience is sometimes a little ahead and sometimes behind. That kind of balancing act to draw out the best qualities of the narrative are things that you can tune in the process.

Kind of like fishing, where you're reeling out and then drawing in a little, reeling out and drawing back in . . .

Exactly, a very good analogy.

Going over your credits and background, I notice that you have worked on a lot of character pieces in addition to big, splashy action films like LETHAL WEAPON. Now that creates quite a different challenge for an editor, because when people think of "editing" they usually think of sequences whereby images flash by at high speed to move the story forward. In some of your films such as RIVER'S EDGE, it's the characters who are moving the story forward. Now, what qualities do you feel you bring to that particular dynamic of storytelling, and what do you bring to a film like POINT BREAK which is more geared toward the action genre?

Yeah, well, I think that in the Age of MTV and the action genre films, editing is very much an invisible craft.

It may not be visible if it's done well.

Exactly. I think that when people think of editing, in their minds it's such an abstract thing that they tend to think of those quick-cut action sequences or MTV music videos as "Editing." And that's completely understandable, but in fact I think editing is something that is most important initially, and probably perhaps in the end, in terms of the performance. I've always felt that performance is the first thing you must get right when editing a picture. And it's interesting in that most people think that the performance they see on the screen is the performance [the actors] did when shooting the movie. But this is not really the case. I mean, in any given scene you may have seven takes on an angle and you may have twelve different angles, and the permutations of that number of performances can be really alarming, in terms of finding the line through the scene that is the most consistent. Some actors are very consistent from take to take and are encouraged to be so. Some directors direct actors so that they might have an idea in mind which they have the actors get as close to as possible but they may let the actor pull it in other directions. Instinctually, whatever. This is such a large topic I don't want to blow that, start talking endlessly about that, but let me just say that much of the editing process is in fact putting together the performance so that there is a consistency, so that there is a line to it, through the scene and all through the movie. On one take the actor may be very broad and another take he may be pulled back and you have to balance these things. When you look at the film for the first time, a scene may in and of itself seem to be playing quite right, but if you look at the arc of the whole movie you may find, Oh, we're playing the character much too down here,' and he did do another take where he was much angrier [with] much more energy in his voice or whatever, and you replace those takes. So it's very interesting.

Also, you know, actors make mistakes occasionally, and this is a technical aspect of acting — matching — and it's almost uninteresting to talk about this but it's very interesting in the cutting room when you're trying to solve these problems. Particularly younger actors who don't have the technique yet, you know; they'll put the water glass down at one end of the table and then they'll put it down on the other end of the table in the other shot, and you can't cut between them — you've seen those moments in films. Finally if it's so severe you just simply say, well, what expresses what the intent is and who cares whether it matches or not? Sometimes you just have to make that kind of decision. But oftentimes you can play around and through all kinds of little tricks create what is a seamless and very smooth line through a scene, in terms of technical aspects of movement and matching.

But also there is very much the tone of the performance itself, and as I was suggesting a broader performance, a more pulled-back performance. As an illustration, on AT CLOSE RANGE, Christopher Walken, who I think is an absolutely brilliant actor as is Sean Penn, and they are very different kinds of actors. Sean is an actor who is very sure of his performance. He's very prepared, he knows his lines inside and out and he matches himself technically perfectly. I've never worked on a film with a younger actor than Sean in terms of how advanced he was technically. It was breathtaking to find him going through very complicated scenes where he had a lot of physical business to do and he does it exactly the same each take, never varies, it's always exactly right — and yet, though it's so precise, it's invisible, you do not see that. That's what's so extraordinary. Now Walken on the other hand is far looser and his brilliance is from take to take, he'll do five completely different versions, both in terms of the performance itself and technically as well. So the fortunate thing was that since Sean was always consistent you could always go for Walken's best moments, when he has it together, because Sean was always going to be the same (Now I mean physically and from a technical point of view).

It was easier to mix elements from different takes.

It's easier in a sense to pull that line through on Walken, because if Sean were the same kind of actor as Walken, then that could have been a nightmare from a technical editing standpoint. It might have been very difficult. There's something very exciting about that kind of performance by the way, I'm not detracting at all. But you have to deal with it differently and oftentimes it has a little bit more of a spontaneous quality to it and sometimes you take the good with the bad in that case. You know there's no way to cut, I mean the mismatches are so bad so you just let it play out. Or you figure out other solutions. Perhaps WILD AT HEART, I don't know it's just a guess, that a lot of the use of inserts came about because of a lot of ad-lib kind of performances. I haven't talked to David [Lynch] about that, it might not be fair to use that as an example. But in any case the first line I feel in editing is to mold the performance and to get that right, and second is to make sure that the intent of the scene comes through. And it's interesting that when you finally screen the film that there are dynamics that are happening among scenes and even among scenes separated by a full act — you know a half an hour later something that is cut a certain way in an early scene may have very amazing repercussions much, much later. That is one thing that's so great and palpable about filmmaking is those relationships between images that come early and images that come later.

I have to say that the thrill of editing is so complex and so interesting, it doesn't really get told very much. People are not aware of it. As I say most filmgoers are aware of cinematography, production design, music, but editing is something that is taking place and all of that magic that's been happening in the cutting room is invisible there; it's a given, so to speak. So I think that's why people, when they think of editing, they think of "cut-cut-cut, here comes the tank, there come the missiles, blam-blam-blam. Bodies in the air," and, you know, that's editing. And I understand that, believe me, but it's a process that I think to be completely understood has to be hands-on — you have to kind of go through it to understand it. I think writers have a sense of that a little bit, they have a taste of it when you edit your own work. But then you get to pace and rhythm and to find those rhythms I think it's very hard to know what the rhythms are. I mean it sucks your breath away sometimes when you find these things. So it's a fantastic process, one that I always find every film is a new film.

I teach a class at USC when I can to graduate students and I'm convinced that it's only in actually doing it that the students can really understand all of these processes. They want to know rules. They want to hear me say, Well, the way you cut this type of scene is, you cut very tight after a line of dialogue, cut to the reaction shot.' They want to hear the rules.

But rules could change with every film.

That's what I'm saying. It's very good to learn the rules and know what they are, but for every rule in editing there are 400 examples of the rule broken which are stunning, which are so effective that you can't believe it. So I think that's what I try ultimately to teach the students: that the editing process is one of discovering all ways. Yes, it's good to learn the tricks and certainly that will help you and facilitate things, but it doesn't tell you, you will never know exactly what to do, so I mean it cannot come down to formula even though you may be working on a formula movie — it still can't be formula ultimately if it's going to be good.

Can you think of an example where you broke an editing "rule" and were very pleased with the results?

Yeah, I can give a number of examples: it's a rule that you should never cut from a rapidly moving camera like a dolly shot to a still shot, a static, locked-down shot. And in George Miller's episode of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," the gremlin on the wing of the airplane, there is a moment when the John Lithgow character is panicking and is so agitated because he's seen this creature out on the wing, he thinks at first that it's some man that's trapped on the wing, and he has startled all the other passengers, they're almost frightened and hysterical and they're all plunging towards the windows and this camera move is dollying very fast down the aisle, and then we cut to an exterior shot, static, of Lithgow looking out the window from essentially what would be the creature's P.O.V., although it's not a literal point of view. And that cut is very effective because it is agitated, and there's something off-putting about what's happening, and I think it just makes for a very powerful moment.

Now, as I say you're not going to be able to break that rule easily. In POINT BREAK for instance there are a lot of very fantastic moving camera shots, and some subtle ones too, that on occasion during our assembly I've fooled with trying to cut out of a shot before it comes to rest. But I have found that it just doesn't work, the context of the scene is not right, where it was perfect for the Lithgow scene.

Another thing that's quite common, I don't mean to pick on AT CLOSE RANGE but it just seems to be illustrative of the moment. Usually if you have two people talking and the conversation goes for a while, you don't cut to one person when they say something and then cut to the other person when they say something, then cut to the other person throughout. That pattern is not usually used throughout a scene because it can become monotonous or sing-songy in terms of its rhythm. Usually to break that up we overlap dialogue — you cut to the person listening while the character who's speaking is still speaking, and you create textures and rhythms that way. Hopefully it's appropriate or there's a motivation for cutting to the reaction (what the person is saying has an effect on the other character and therefore it's meaningful to cut to their face, to see how they're responding). This is a way to make a rich dialogue sequence play well, filmically.

The opening sequence in AT CLOSE RANGE where Sean Penn's character has his first meeting with the girl played by Mary Stuart Masterson, they have their first little conversation, and in fact I violate all the rules there. When she says something I cut to her, when he says something I cut to him, and I keep that all of the way throughout, and the reason I did that is because there is a tentativeness about their first communication and a separateness to them, and so I wanted it to be a little bit off, pushed, and to pull something like that off it's gotta be rhythmically exactly right or else it will just seem monotonous, and I don't think it does. It's for others to judge but I feel good about that sequence. And there I violated the rules. There are a few extra little goodies, there's a car that goes by, and they turn to look at it, to break up that pattern, but in fact according to the rules it's not cut correctly.

This happens all the time. As I say, questions of screen direction which all first-time directors are terrified of: Am I going to really do a real boo-boo on screen direction and mess up?' It's something that is like learning to ride a bicycle; once you really know it you know it inside out and upside down, and it's very rare you can make a mistake. But I have to say that even seasoned film directors think about it. I remember when Howard Hawks was prepping for one of his last films, which involved a train chase, he had everything so carefully storyboarded in terms of screen direction of the train so that there would be no errors in screen direction, and there's a man who was a Master of cinema as far as I'm concerned, and concerned that he wants to get it right, so he had it all carefully, carefully storyboarded.

But if you look at something like the sequence from Hawks' STAGECOACH, the Indian chase, from a cinematic standpoint [it] violates every rule of screen direction and yet you always understand what the scene is about and no one has a problem with it. No one says, 'Wait a second, now the stagecoach is chasing the Indians. What's going on?' Everyone always understands it, but if you look at it from the point of view of correct mechanics of screen direction it violates the rules constantly with every other shot practically. So again if the audience understands the basic geography then you can violate certain things at certain times, and it can be cinematically or graphically quite powerful.

I think there's a language that people learn in cinema and they may not be able to articulate it but they know it — they're filmgoers. And though literacy is not as good as it should be in this country, visual literacy is quite high, and I think that audiences on a visual level are sometimes far more sophisticated than filmmakers would tend to give them credit for; they're way ahead of you, and I think that — this is another aspect of editing — if you gain their confidence, if you show the audience that they're in good hands, then you can start pushing things later, when it's fun to do so or when it's meaningful to do so. And taking the thing into interesting places; the audience will follow you more easily if you've given them the confidence.

When you studied at AFI, you also studied direction and cinematography. What did you learn from those disciplines that has helped in editing?

In filmmaking it's impossible to do everything all the time and that's why I do mostly editing now. I love cinematography incredibly, and I miss it, I would like to do more of it, but as happens I've made a career out of editing. I think that for young filmmakers the more they know of various disciplines the better filmmakers they will be no matter where they focus; even screenwriters if they understand a little bit about the editing process and actually can do some, or cinematography, I really believe very strongly [they] can write better screenplays. And directors as well, if they have cut, edited, all of that will help them, and I think too a cinematographer who has done some writing, who has done some editing, all of this will help strengthen any particular area that the filmmaker chooses or happens to end up in.

I think there's no question that having a background in cinematography [helps me]. I was quite young when I started; I found my parents' home movie equipment in the closet when I was around 11 years old and I got a hold of that stuff and I never stopped. So I was very much self-taught, although I read whatever books I could at that time that were published [which was] mostly fairly simple stuff, and some of the classics like Eisenstein's book. But now of course the film book stores are just, I mean the shelves are full of books on technical aspects that may be a little bit off-putting in some ways to filmmakers getting started.

But also, highly specialized books on film crafts may not lead a student to learn about many other film disciplines.

Exactly. There's so much now in so many areas that it's almost overwhelming, so it may be that the atmosphere was good for me because I could only get just so much information and the rest I had to just do and discover on my own. I think that's a very good way to learn it or to get started initially. And then I think it's very good to go to film school and work with other filmmakers who are aspiring to open up and express whatever they need to do and to find ways to do it filmically.

I was very much self-taught until I got to college. I was fortunate to go to Northwestern University which had a very good film department that was not just focused on the theatrical motion picture. I was exposed to other kinds of filmmaking [such as] documentary filmmaking, which influenced my cinematography and my style of shooting. Many filmmakers who were formative during the Sixties were influenced by cinema-verite techniques that were happening all around, and the use of lighter, more portable equipment, higher speed films and whatnot. For instance, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, one of William Friedkin's early films, it's a film that I just love to watch now from a technical point of view in that it uses all those wonderful handheld camera techniques and P.O.V.'s, and the car chase is a masterpiece of using a verite hand-held camera to pull you into the moment. You feel like you are just completely drawn in. It's happening these days with the Steadicam, which is a fantastic invention, it's done wonderful things; you don't find people using handheld camera too much anymore.

What I mean is obviously hand-held, bumpy [camerawork]. That works so well in that sequence in THE FRENCH CONNECTION. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if somebody doesn't look at a film like that, see what's going on and say, 'Hey! Here's a technique, let's try this on our next film,' and suddenly it'll be fresh again.

The underground experimental film making that was happening in the Sixties was very influential on me and my visual style, and it's very interesting that all of those things have been integrated into theatrical feature filmmaking. And the use of long lenses which is now so common today is something that I was into when I was making my films in the Sixties. All I can say is that learning all of those visual tricks of how to put those kinds of shots together editing them together effectively so that they would work, because it takes a slightly different editing approach to deal with those kinds of shots — the information comes at you in a little bit different way. It's all been integrated into something that's happening quite often in feature filmmaking today. And Kathryn uses it quite beautifully in POINT BREAK, as she did on NEAR DARK.

You've developed pretty steady relationships with some interesting directors, like Tim Hunter, James Foley, Kathryn Bigelow. Do you offer much creative input before or during the shooting process?

In my case, no. I like to work with filmmakers who I think are interesting, who have good scripts. I think that my work and the director's work happens in the cutting room principally. Which is not to say that if I've seen dailies I may note that a shot that was not shot but could be done fairly easily might be a helpful thing to have. I may relay that information, but that happens very rarely, because the directors that I've worked with (and I've been fortunate in that not all editors have those kinds of directors to work with) do what they do very well. No, it isn't until we get into the cutting room where we really start interacting. I mean, ideally that's not entirely true. The most important moment I think during production is when the director and the editor sit down and watch dailies, so that you can understand what the intent of the director was, and communication during dailies is very important. I have found that 98 percent of the time the director and I are in agreement in terms of performance — what seems to be the best take, or best takes.

That's an interesting sidelight, too, by the way. Sometimes when you're looking at dailies you may see a take that the overall gestahlt of the thing is that it is just fantastic, it's alive and it breathes from beginning to end and you say, That's the take, it's just far and away better than any of those other takes.' Then you get into the cutting room and you start cutting and then something amazing can happen and that is, when you cut that take with the reverse angle and the other shots that it has to be cut with, a certain chemistry starts happening and what you may discover is that, yes, that take overall was great but in fact in take two the second line as the actor did it is much better than the second line in take three which you thought was so wonderful, and you put that in instead and suddenly bingo! it's much better. And you can actually find yourself using hardly any of that number three take that you thought was so extraordinary from beginning to end and using little bits and pieces of other takes. So in being an editor, a director, you have to be able to see things with incredible focus and detail. It's not just the overall gestahlt of the piece.

To get back to what I was saying, working with directors, sitting down at dailies — that's a very important time that I spend, but it isn't until the director is finished that we really start pushing and playing with the material and collaborating on getting the very best out of it. I feel that my work is best when I serve the vision of the director. And I am always trying to be clear as to what that is, and I think that the people I work with, like Kathryn, Tim and Jamie, feel that that's what I do for them, is that I see and I assist them in finding their movie, the movie they intended to make, and I think that's very important for an editor. The other thing that I do is I always make it clear that I don't think that such-and-such is a good idea or I think this would work better. I will always put my input into it, but never at the detriment of the director's vision which again in my experience is very important. The other thing I might say on top of that is I like working with these people because we work so well together. I mean that's why I think that's why those kinds of associations happen. I would love to work with somebody like Sydney Pollack, but they too have editors who they work with well. When you find an editor and a director who have worked together often it's because they have this relationship.

I get a lot of calls to work with first-time directors, maybe it's because of my teaching, I've been at Sundance for a number of years now as a resource person, and so I do get calls to work on pictures for first-time directors, and I don't know, perhaps it's the teacher in me that makes it. I'm sort of Socratic when I'm working with somebody who hasn't gone through the process. I try to let them discover as much as possible, I don't like to say, 'This is how it has to be done.' So they find their movie in working with it themselves. And that gives them confidence. So in any case, you know my chances of working with a lot of great directors I think are very slim, but I certainly don't regret it because the films I do work on I find very satisfying.

You might be working with some great directors right from the very beginning.

Well, at least early on it seems, yeah.

Technically how do you work? Do you cut on the Steenbeck, or are you more geared toward editing on video?

No, in fact I use both a Moviola, which some people think is something their great-grandmother sewed with, but I find it's a wonderful editing tool still to this day, although it doesn't look high-tech and slick and neat; and I use the Cameron Steenbeck. That's what I prefer. I have edited on tape and it has a lot of strengths, and it has some weaknesses which for cutting feature films I still find are troublesome although there are new systems and improved systems all the time. Montage and Editroid and Editflex and the new CMX systems are all really fine and I am sure that in the future everybody will be editing on tape or electronically, whether it's tape or digital. We'll see. The electronics are wonderful when they're working; when they're down, they can be very annoying. But I know that eventually that's what we're going to be doing exclusively. But I still find for feature film editing, most directors want to see their films on the big screen, projected big. If you're cutting on tape or laserdisc you could do a projection thing but it's not the equivalent of seeing it at Radio City Music Hall, or even something a little smaller than that. Some productions have done their cutting electronically and then have another crew behind them conforming the work print film to the video cut. And they were able to screen it that way. But that's doubling your manpower and expenses.

But I have all of my dailies on tape, which is fantastic because it's very easy to review your film.

Is that just taken off the video assist monitor?

Actually we have it done by the lab. But that is a way that people do it. In fact I think Steenbeck now has a new module that allows you to take your editing machine and use it as a video transfer, which is very good if you're on location and there is no facility to do film-to-tape transfers nearby; that can be quite a wonderful tool. I find that the ability to review your material on tape is an incredible boon to the feature film editing room that is cutting on film. To have this video is a great assist, if only that.

I think that electronic editing is very appropriate for television, for many applications, certainly where your final product is essentially video; nothing beats that. But as I said the only drawback for feature filmmaking is this need to see this film and how it plays and what happens on the big screen, because the dynamic is different. There are very few films I know that I've seen that I preferred on video, which is not to put that down; it's very important. to have the kind of access to films. When I went to film school the only way to see a film was a scratchy 16mm copy if it were even available; and if it were a fairly recent Hollywood film, forget it. You had to live in Hollywood and go to USC or UCLA where they could get a hold of it through the studio library. You can study films now in a way you couldn't easily in the Sixties and Seventies, it's fantastic.

But in any case I still have a prejudice towards a certain kind of experience which you only get in a theatre on a big screen. Some films translate well to video but some don't, and I think it's [because of] that dynamic, that directors are a little bit reluctant to only have the experience of cutting on tape and not seeing the film projected.

Portions of this interview appeared in Millimeter Magazine, 1991.



copyright 1990, 2009 by David Morgan
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