In 1986, my friend Irving Goldworm was renting out flatbed editing equipment. He decided to honor his clients—film, video, and sound editors—by interviewing them and publishing the interviews in a slick "magazine" called Editing, which he gave away to movie folk. In 1989, he hired me to do that job. I was a photographer, movie fiend, and had interview and edit experience with my book, "Straight Life: the story of Art Pepper." Need I say this was a dream job? This is movie history —Laurie Pepper (coming up: Walter Murch, Francoise Bonnot, Richard Marks, Lynzee Klingman, Malcolm Campbell, Carol Littleton, Ralph Winters, Susan Krutcher, Paul Hirsch (2 parts), etc. etc.)

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Editing: Dede Allen, Part One of Two

Part 1 of an interview with Dede Allen on the dialectics of editing, constructing a first cut, and juggling scenes in "The Hustler."

"Collaboration involves competing in a positive way."

NOVEMBER 1991: Interview by Laurie Pepper

Dede Allen is famous. Most film editors aren't. She says she's been lucky - in the progress of her career, in the directors she's been teamed with, in the projects she's been offered. Benjamin Franklin said that diligence is the mother of good luck. Dede Allen has been phenomenally diligent. She's also been passionately committed to the art of making great movies and is outspoken about the circumstances that help or hinder filmmaking as a whole. Her luck is that she's been blessed with charm, character, intelligence, and wit. Without which diligence (and talent) may be barren.

Her credits to date are "Woman from the Year 2000," "Odds Against Tomorrow," "The Hustler," "America, America," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Rachel, Rachel," "Alice's Restaurant," "Little Big Man," "Slaughterhouse Five," "Serpico," "Visions of Eight," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Night Moves," "The Missouri Breaks' , (with Jerry Greenberg and Steve Rotter), "Slap Shot," "The Wiz," "Reds" (with Craig McKay), "Mike's Murder" (with Jeff Gourson), "Harry and Son," "The Breakfast Club," "Off Beat," "The Milagro Beanfield War," "Let It Ride" (with Jim Miller), "Henry and June" (with Vivien Hillgrove and William Scharf), and' 'The Addams Family."

Editing: What do you consider the greatest rewards to you from your career at this stage, and then what are your pet peeves? 
: That's two sides of the coin, right? In relationship to the career? 
Editing: Yes. You can talk about life, also.
Allen: It all mixes. It's an old word that one was afraid to use for a long time - dialectic. That's what editing's all about.
Editing: Editing is dialectic? Please expound on that.
Allen: Well, if you make a tiny change in something, it usually affects everything else. If you switch a scene around, it can cause reverberations on story, on rhythm, on emotion, on understanding. This is true of any cut. How you choose to play a love scene: You have two people. Who makes the first move? This can change something to do with one of the characters and that can progress into another scene. It can sometimes adversely affect a character.

   In "The Hustler," we had to drop one of Newman's best scenes (I thought he was great in that movie. I still think it's one of the his best pieces of work and this was by far the best solar star moment) because it really said the same thing as another scene, and when they were put closer together, you realized it was redundant. Which scene could be lost and not injure the picture? We had to lose it. One of the great things about Robert Rossen, one of the reasons I loved working with him, he was very much a story person. So none of my work with him on "The Hustler" was nitpicking (He would go absolutely crazy if! wanted to fine-tune a scene that he felt was playing. He said, "Why are you pishing in the mustard?" He said, "Leave it alone, you're gonna improve it into a disaster"), but we took what was 14 reels, I think, at the time, and we switched scenes around to an extent I'd never seen before. And it's fascinating the kinds of things that come out of a story, particularly in terms of characters, when you start rearranging things a little. Now, for somebody frightened and new and not knowing what they're doing that could be calamitous. It has to be somebody who's grounded in writing, as Rossen was, and the reason for doing it is story.
   You will sometimes find scripts are overwritten. Everything is overstated. In the editing, it becomes glaringly evident. Certain scenes don't have to be as long as they are. Maybe just a look can say something that is duplicated in a long speech. Well, that is where you have to be very astute about story and character. You have to know what the film is about in order to make it tight. 
   Audiences are smart, and they're used to absorbing a great deal in a hurry. You have to make sure you don't underestimate them. On the other hand, you have to be careful not to do what is often done these days, which is to get MTVish (which is fine for MTV), where you just do images and get arty. In a story, this doesn't work unless that sequence of images belongs in that story. 
   Motion pictures start with the writing. First the writer says and then the director says and then the actor says. It's not just a matter of putting pictures together in the prettiest or most stylish way. I've often had cuts that were sensational but they loused up a scene; I had to get rid of them. You can have a wonderful cut, a wonderful line, a wonderful moment but does it ... ? That's part of what I meant by the dialectics overall. It has to work. You can have a great screenplay, however, which can go totally awry if the acting is wrong. 
   "Dog Day Afternoon" was a wonderful movie, but a very difficult movie to decide to do, because it was dangerous. It could have been a devastatingly camp, embarrassing kind of picture if it had been done with anything but the kind of care and taste with which it was played. It's a story of unappealing people in an unappealing situation, a challenging story, but very exciting when you have performances like Pacino's and a director like Sidney Lumet. The tonality of it was sympathetic, entertaining, so that you liked or cared about this character, Sonny, in his crazy desperation. 
Editing: You've mentioned "The Hustler" and "Dog Day Afternoon." In both those pictures, time is an important element: time passing. Both convey the tension and exhaustion inherent in that without ever lagging. How'd you do it?   
Allen: Gee. I don't know if I know how to answer that. You do it by doing what you do. 
Editing: That's a good answer. 
Allen: Thats the stupidest answer I ever ... You do it with the same rules you cut anything with. You make a scene play, then you make a series of scenes play, and then you make an entire film play. And if tension or time is part of what's involved in the film, then that plays. I don't do it by saying, "Ah, this is a film in which time is involved, and I have to be very careful, put a montage in here," and so on. I do not do an Eisenstein board, which is what I call "talking a good cut," intellectualizing. I feel my way through characters. And you become part of the tension, I think.
Editing: In "Bonnie and Clyde," in the impotence scene, there is a quick arrhythmic series of closeups and two-shots. The characters are dismayed and uncomfortable and because of the way that's shown, the audience shares their discomfort.
Allen: Again, that was not thought out or done intentionally. You just viscerally, emotionally feel the way the characters feel. You basically become so involved in a scene that you become moved or excited or amused. And every film is a life experience. You learn about people. 
    Actors say they have to become the part. The editor has to become part of the part. You live in the world of what that story is. Which doesn't mean that I don't have a method or I don't know how to go about it. I had a lot of training. You have to know the rules to break them, and for years, when I was learning, one of my great insecurities was that I didn't feel that I knew all those rules, and some of what I knew I didn't particularly like. I've broken many rules in my time.
Editing: Any examples? 
Allen: Oh, "Bonnie and Clyde." I remember Jack Warner, looking at the streamers (you mark the film with grease pencil to indicate a fade or a dissolve) asking Arthur Penn, "You mean you're going to fade out and cut in?" Arthur said, "That's what we're going to do." Arthur wanted a certain kind of tempo, and in that case, in order to get it, the more rules I broke, the better the scene or the picture played. The mismatches made in order to speed the tempo did not necessarily make the cuts look great. In fact, they sometimes looked ridiculously bad. Many aficionados thought that was the worst-cut picture they ever saw. But later it almost became stylish to imitate the so-called technique. 
   "Slaughterhouse Five" looks very much like a tricky editor's picture. Initially, George Roy Hill had carefully worked out each transition, even the progressions from one scene to another. But when we got into it, we discovered that it wouldn't work unless we broke some of the rules that had been set up for that picture. We broke the rules to always playoff the characters. It worked when we played off Billy Pilgrim. 
   I never begin a picture with any specific rules in my head. I don't systematically start a scene with a long shot or a close-up. Sometimes the director shot it in such a way that it's crying for a certain thing to be first, but that's rare. I've never worked on a picture that was shot in the camera; I get the hard ones (laughs). I do get called in on pictures that are supposed to be hard, and these days, as I'm getting older, I sometimes get matched up with first-time directors. 
Editing: Which leads into one of my questions. How do you work with directors and producers to create the best possible film? Do you have a philosophy of collaboration that makes the process easier and more successful?
Allen: Collaboration involves competing in a positive way. It involves trust and respect. It takes a director who has a lot of confidence and a lot of patience—with me. Because I ask a lot of questions. I want to know what they have in mind, so sometimes I get a little rambunctious trying to find out. Sometimes I push them into thinking about something they haven't thought through. And they don't necessarily want to. That can get you into a bit of trouble. But most directors I've worked with don't feel threatened, and when you have a confident human being it's a great experience. One of the most wonderful. 
Editing: So that's one of the rewards I asked you about at first. 
Allen: Absolutely. That was the kind of thing I formed with John Hughes right away. I had a ball with him. I came on "The Breakfast Club" when they were two weeks into shooting. I had an intensive eight- to ten-hour screening of all the material one Sunday. It's a picture about relationships between these five kids and one - kind of - teacher. I wore Hughes out. All I did was talk about the kids, the characters. Which was no different from how I'd worked with Kazan on "America America," which was to discuss the characters and the story. 
   Of course Hughes is a writer, and Kazan was a writer, too (I think "America America" was his first screenplay). I spend a lot of time with my directors trying to get a total feeling of what the director feels about the characters and the story. I did that with George Hill. I spent a lot of time on the phone with Arthur Penn; I had no hesitation about calling to discuss character, motivation. And the editor is definitely a sounding board for the director. 
   One thing I learned, by the way, and this was with Arthur Penn, was not to leave anything out. Even if a scene doesn't work, a director always kind of wants to see what it was. You may be a step or many steps ahead of the director at the time he or she sees the first cut, because you've been living with it much longer. It doesn't matter. You still have to go through that awful period where there's too much. But that's not an "assembly." What it is is a very carefully constructed first cut. 
Editing: What's an "assembly'? 
Allen: It's an insulting term. You asked about pet peeves. That is my pet-est peeve. An assembly's supposed to be the first general putting together of a film. For the benefit of the studio or people who basically don't understand what you're doing. "What's the big deal? You paste the damn stuff together." Quick and dirty. I don't know how to do something quick and dirty. I don't work that way, and I have a hunch most other editors don't either. I have worked scenes out to the point where they may be long, they may be redundant, you may find that you have it here, here, and here, or you may have taken a character too far, and it's hurt something in a subsequent scene. But they are anything but assemblies. An assembly is counterproductive. You can't just slap it together, because if you slap it together then you have to undo it all. Anything that takes away from the process of making a picture the best it can be annoys me, and this is a helluva thing, to ask someone to take the film and chop it up, in effect, only to put it back together and start all over. And you might never have as fresh a view. 
   But I'm very practical. If the studio is going to pull the plug, and the reason for making the assembly is to keep the picture going, I can understand that. 
   On "The Hustler," we had to throw something together because the studio was giving Rossen so much trouble. We pinned all the masters together-with a couple of closeups thrown in. It quieted them down; they left us alone. But, generally, the pressure for a fast assembly is their tool, a way to prod you, to make you go faster, and all it does is slow you down. It's a need to control. There's an arrogance now about some people in the studios-who don't really know what you do. They're in charge of a situation and have no idea what that entails or what's the best way to work. 
   Making a film is very much like raising a child. You have to nurture it on every level. It has to be cast well. (I think casting is extremely important, and I think directors who find casting important are usually the ones who, over the years, have done the best work. That's kind of hard, now, because these packages are being put together ... ). It has to be directed well and it has to be finished well. I've been lucky to have been working in mostly autonomous situations or where I have a director who has some clout or a strong, good producer. If you don't have that, then it's just mayhem. You've got every arrogant person afraid of their job, thinking they know how to do it, trying to get their little digs in, and that doesn't work. It's unpleasant. 
   A good producer is very valuable. I've seen a good director in the hands of a bad producer not have the same confidence and not do his best work. I think Warren Beatty is one of the best producers I ever had. On "Bonnie and Clyde" he put the right person with the right picture and he fought all the right fights to get it the way he wanted it. 
Editing: A good editor is very valuable, too. In which productions on which you've worked do you feel the editing made a major difference in the success of the picture? 
Allen: (Laughs.) I'd like to think it made a difference in every picture.