IN 1975 I EDITED A FILM directed by Brian De Palma called Obsession. It was an independent production, and upon its completion, no studio in Hollywood would agree to release it because of an edgy plot development. After some thought, I suggested changing one shot in the film, from a wide establishing shot of a mansion to a close-up of our star. With this one substitution, Columbia Pictures agreed to distribute the film. That is what editing can do.
These are the words from a very distinguished film editor, Paul Hirsch, the Oscar-winning professional behind Star Wars. The Empire Strikes Back, Mission: Impossible, and Ray, amongst many other important titles. Hirsch has published a book, telling his life as an editor: A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away, at Chicago Review Press. Here are a few excerpts from this work. There are not many books from film editors telling you about his trade. This a great chance to have a look at home important films were really made.
The editor and the director
The editor and director are mutually vulnerable. The editor is the director’s first audience, and any mistakes made in the shooting are there on the screen for us to see. As for us editors, the director is really our only true audience. Only he or she is privy to all the choices we have made, unfiltered through anyone else’s sensibility. Consequently, the creative bond between director and editor can be extremely intimate. Ideally, each one provides emotional support to the other.
No deep roots
Editing is the only aspect of filmmaking without deep roots in some earlier art form. Writing and acting come from theater. Production design has its antecedents in the theater too, as do costume, hair, and makeup. Photography has painting as its ancestor, but telling a story through a succession of images and sounds is native to the art of motion-picture making. There is a relation to hieroglyphics as well as to picture books, but these are to the dynamic of film editing as the oxcart is to the space shuttle.
Like no other art form
In an effort to communicate what it is all about, editing is often described as being like other art forms. It’s like sculpting with clay, in a way, because you can add bits or take them away. It’s like architecture because visual structures are created, with foundations and an eye to grace, proportion, and balance.
It’s like choreography, except that instead of organizing movement in three-dimensional space over a given amount of time, movement is organized in a two-dimensional plane, and instead of music giving the movement its shape, it may be dialogue. It’s like writing when rearranging the order of shots creates a new meaning. Editing has been referred to as the final rewrite of the script. Others have said you make a movie three times: once in the script, once in the shooting, and once in the editing.
The purgation of superfluities
Sometimes my major contribution to a film is taking a scene out. With the scene removed, the film may acquire a better flow or even a sense of mystery and tension. As Michelangelo said, “Beauty is the purgation of superfluities.”
I once heard someone say about Mozart that his music produces a combination of surprise and inevitability. Your first reaction is Oh! Then you think Of course! I decided that this was something to aspire to in my own work. I prize clarity, so that the audience “gets it.” If they become confused, they tune out and soon get bored. My fellow editor Donn Cambern, in teaching students, says there are only two rules in editing: don’t confuse the audience and don’t bore them.
It is one of the strictest rules in my makeup that the editor must be loyal to the director. I have occasionally been asked by producers or studio executives to show them something without the director’s permission. This is a no-no, and by and large, the “suits” know this and respect the rules. It was much later in my career that I found a way to deal with those occasional awkward situations.
Some of the movies that Hirsch edited are:
More about Paul Hirsch in the following podcast:
Even more about Paul Hirsch in the following video interview:
More on Film Editing in The Editing of STAR WARS: How Cutting Created a Classic and ON FILM EDITING According to Edward Dmytryk.
More on filmmaking in The 5 Best Books on Making Movies, by Darren Aronofsky, Best “Making Of” Books: The Making of BLADE RUNNER, All DUNES before DUNE (TV and Movies, from Jodorowky’s to Villeneuve’s), The Use of Colour in JOKER and Honoring THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS 30 years after, amongst many others.