GOT JOB ON 'STAR WARS' AFTER DE PALMA SCREENED FINAL CUT OF 'CARRIE' FOR GEORGE & MARCIA LUCAS
November 5th is the publication date for Paul Hirsch's book, A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away: My Fifty Years Editing Hollywood Hits―Star Wars, Carrie, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Mission: Impossible, and More. Promoting the book, in which Hirsch writes about his experiences over 50 years in the film business, he recently spoke with Moviehole's Mike Smith:
MIKE SMITH: What drew you to become a film editor?
PAUL HIRSCH: A number of things. I was fascinated when I first saw a Moviola. I was blown away by a festival of Orson Welles films. I liked working with my hands, and was drawn to the tools. I loved movies.
MS: Other film editors I’ve interviewed had mentors they admired. I recently spoke with Arthur Schmidt and he told me that he learned under Dede Allen and Neil Travis. Did you have someone whose work you admired and/or who took you under their wing?
PH: Brian DePalma was my mentor. He encouraged me, empowered me, validated my work and deeply influenced me. I was cutting his films from the age of 23, and so never worked under a professional feature film editor. I learned by doing and studying how films I admired were cut. I was sort of like the art students you see in museums, copying the masters.
MS: How did you come to edit “Hi Mom” for Brian DePalma?
I had cut the trailer for “Greetings,” thanks to my brother. When they got the money to do a sequel, titled “Son of Greetings,” Brian hired me to cut it.
MS: Five or your first six films were with DePalma. He is well known – and often criticized – for his use of split-screen (the prom from “Carrie” being a great example). Was that something you discussed in the editing room or was that his original vision?
PH: Split screen is Brian’s thing. I can’t take credit for it, but I do love and appreciate the tension that can result from juxtaposing images on the screen, even if, or rather, especially if, the screen isn’t actually split. I’m referring to deep focus shots, which have become a lost art, where you have a near object on one side, and a distant one on the other. Brian did that a lot, using split diopters, with tremendous success.
MS: A lot of the young filmmakers in the 70s (DePalma, Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas) were very close with each other. Is that how you were hired for “Star Wars?”
PH: Yes. Brian screened the final cut of “Carrie” for George and Marcia Lucas on their return from principal photography on”Star Wars” in England. They needed help, and turned to me.
MS: How difficult was it editing a film where you sometimes had to wait months for a finished special effects shot?
PH: We had ways around that. We would cut in place-holders or a piece of leader that we estimated was the right length.
MS: You, along with Marcia Lucas and Richard Chew, received the Academy Award for your work on “Star Wars.” Where do you keep your Oscar?
PH: It’s on a bookshelf in my office.
MS: You’ve done eleven films with DePalma but, surprisingly, not ‘The Untouchables.” Was there a reason you didn’t cut that picture?
PH: I moved to the West Coast after “Blow Out.” I didn’t cut a picture for Brian in the ensuing ten years. We next worked together on “Raising Cain,” when he was living in California.
MS: You also worked a lot with John Hughes. How was he to work with and were there any major differences in the way he and DePalma approached a film?
PH: John was a lot of fun to work with until he wasn’t. He was a brilliant artist, but had mercurial moods. But I had a great time working with him. John was a writer, primarily, and his medium was words, by and large. Brian is a great visualist. His ideas are primarily graphic, both in terms of camera movement, which no one does better, and in terms of visual story-telling, that is to say, how scenes can be constructed in the editing room.
MS: Hal Ashby was a great film editor who went on to become a fine director. Have you ever wanted to direct?
PH: I did want to for a while, and then the fever broke. I like working all the time, and editing afforded me that. To me, directing was like perpetually running for office. I’m more of an introvert, and editing suits me just fine.
MS: Your most recent film was the Tom Cruise version of “The Mummy.” What is the biggest difference between cutting a film now and forty-plus years ago?
PH: There’s a lot more reliance on vfx now, which consumes a lot of time and energy. And when I started out, directors were given much more discretion. The director was the key creative figure in the package, often with final cut. That happens less these days. If a director had a hit back then, the studio would ask, “What do you want to do next?” Today, the projects are developed by the studio, and the director is “cast” the same way you would choose an actor for a role. Producers and studio executives are much more involved in the editing process these days.