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Filmgoers don’t know the name Paul Hirsch nearly as well as those of Brian De Palma, George Lucas or John Hughes, but after a five-decade career as a film editor, he’s been an integral part of some of the biggest movies ever.
Hirsch says editing is a creative art despite the mechanical specialization of the pre-digital days, and his new book “A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away” (Chicago Review Press) makes a powerful case for the influence an editor can have over the creative direction of a film.
The book’s opening paragraph tells a story about how the decision to switch a wide shot to a close-up of the star in one of his early movies (De Palma’s “Obsession”) convinced Columbia Pictures to pick up and distribute the film. “Context is everything,” writes Hirsch, who along with Marsha Lucas and Richard Chew won the editing Oscar in 1978 for the original “Star Wars.” “You can take the most affecting moment of a four-hankie movie and cut it into the middle of a broad comedy, and it will seem absurd.”
But when asked about the theory some have that it’s the editor rather than the director who’s the ultimate author of a film — considering their command over the pace and therefore tone — he’s characteristically humble.
“No, it’s a collaborative thing,” Hirsch says. “I control the pace for a while. There’s a period where I’m acting autonomously. But when the director gets finished with production, we start working together to edit the film to produce the final result. At best, I’d say it’s a co-authorship, but I don’t want to give myself too much credit because I’m in the idea business. Maybe the director accepts my ideas, and I’ve been very fortunate in people endorsing my choices to a great extent, but I still wouldn’t consider myself an author.”
Hirsch likens the process to that of acting, where a performer may do 10 takes of a scene and make a different choice each time, all of it ultimately to give the director raw material.
Never one to do things conventionally, he has avoided the usual creative model where some editors and directors are inextricably linked (Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Quentin Tarantino and Sally Menke, Steven Spielberg and Michael Kahn, etc.). He calls such unions “happy marriages,” but says in his book that he prefers to “sleep around,” taking it as a point of pride when directors invite him back.
The book makes readers realize what an unsung art editing is. But Hirsch says his intention in writing it — he’s been scribbling notes for it over the last 18 years — isn’t to teach. “It’s really about explaining what it is to be an editor, what kind of life you have if you’re an editor,” he says. “I’m not really interested in how-to books. My aim was to entertain people, tell them a good story and explain what we do.”
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.
HULLFISH: I watched Obsession — which you had suggested — a lovely movie and then today I watched Mission: Impossible. Same editor, same director – but two very different films.
HIRSCH: Well, they were made 20 years apart, and completely different genres.
HULLFISH: Looking at the year of release, was Mission: Impossible your first on Avid or had you done one or two before that?
HIRSCH: Mission: Impossible was the first picture I did using computers. The early 90s was when the big changeover happened, and it was on Lightworks, not Avid.
HULLFISH: Watching dailies is really interesting to me, and since you obviously have come from a place of watching dailies on film could you talk to me a little bit about the difference between watching dailies from the film days to the NLE days?
HIRSCH: It used to be that dailies were shown in a theater every day. The DP would be there, the director, a producer usually, and sometimes — depending on the scene — you might have the costume people and makeup people come to see what their work looked like on screen.
There’s something about the meeting of all those minds in one place in one room at one time that helps solve problems. You can discuss things. “What are we doing tomorrow about this?” and so forth. Now dailies are distributed online. They’re streaming and everybody looks at it individually and at their own pace and so I guess it’s more convenient for everyone else. It’s a phenomenon happening all over, people working in silos.
I feel fortunate to have had my career at a point in the development of the business that was more respectful of the contributions that the various crafts people were bringing to the process. Happiness for me is always proportional to the amount of discretion and autonomy that I have.
HULLFISH: One of the things that I was thinking about when I was watching Obsession was how little coverage there must have been on some of those scenes and the number of takes. The pace is very deliberate. The shots are beautiful. Looking at dailies in that era was a very different thing — like you said — just because of the amount of dailies.
HIRSCH: It was expensive to develop and print. So there was a limit as to how many takes Brian (director, Brian De Palma) was allowed. He could make an exception, but usually not. And he doesn’t cover. He has a very particular idea of the action and the choreography of the camera and how they relate and the blocking the camera and it doesn’t allow for coverage. It’s a shot designed to be in a particular place. I found, working with Brian, I could look at his dailies and know what he had in mind, just from the design of the dailies. And he liked working with me because when he looked at what I’d edited, he’d say, “Yeah that’s what I wanted.” So I wasn’t micromanaged but I still was able to deliver what he wanted.
HULLFISH: And that’s because the intent — when you’re watching the dailies — there were shots that when you watched them on the screen — at least as an editor — I thought that shot at that moment was probably the only thing that you ever considered because Brian shot them in a very specific way and the camera movement revealed things and you probably thought, “Why would I ever break that up with coverage?”
HIRSCH: One of the editor’s tricks is to use each angle only once. That way the impression is created that it was intended for just that moment, even if it was a choice made in the editing rooom. When Tom Cruise breaks into the CIA in Mission: Impossible, the action is taking place in the vault as well as outside the vault. So the daiies are less specific. Finding the right continuity is the tricky bit.
HULLFISH: Right. And I was going to ask you about those. Those are two scenes with a ton of tension to them: breaking into the vault with a lot of cuts to close ups of drops of sweat and knives and rats and all these things that are happening and then also the high-speed rail scene.
HIRSCH: The vault scene has no music.
HULLFISH: I didn’t realize that!
HIRSCH: Breaking into the CIA is absolutely silent and Brian wanted to take EVERYTHING out. Gary Rydstrom — who’s the sound editor — had put in a little squeak for the wheel that the rope goes though as Ethan descends into the vault and Brian said, “No, no! Get rid of it.” They wouldn’t have a squeaky wheel. They would have taken care of that. So there are hardly any sound effects and absolutely no music.
Absence of music creates tension. It’s something I learned from Bernard Herrmann when I was 26 years old and I had cut a sequence in Sisters. Bill Finley plays the doctor trying to get Margot Kidder to relive a traumatic memory and he’s holding up a bloody knife to her to try to shock her into remembering. We’re on his face; we’re on his hand with a bloody knife; we’re on her face; and then we’re also on her hand as she reaches down to take a scalpel off a table nearby. So I was intercutting these various shots and it was getting faster and faster until the moment when she slashes at him with the scalpel. When [Herrmann] saw this scene and we were talking about when to add the music cue, he’d say, “Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.” And then when she slashed him is when he introduced the music. I had imagined that he would be building tension in the music up to the point of the slash. So what I thought would be the musical climax was where he started, not ended.
So I went back and I looked at North by Northwest and saw the same thing with the crop dusting scene. That whole scene — If you say to people, “Do you remember the music in that scene?” They’ll say, “Oh yeah. It was fantastic!” Well, there isn’t any. No music at all. You hear the cropduster as it comes by and Cary Grant dives into the dust and it comes after him again and then this tanker truck comes out on the highway and he goes to the highway to stop it and the plane crashes into the truck and the whole thing explodes. That’s where the music comes in.
HIRSCH: So all that tension that you were feeling was a function of no music. So it’s a very important lesson to learn that silence is an effect also.
HULLFISH: [Herrmann] did the score for Obsession as well.
HIRSCH: Yes, yes. I think a lot of the power of the ending — I saw it recently after many, many years. I don’t watch my films because when you get to the end of a film you’d rather put your eyes out than see it one more time. When you wait 40 years to see it again, it looks different. It played a little slower than I’d remembered. I knew it was slow, but I’m looking at through today’s eyes and that’s different from back then. But what really worked for me was the ending. Really emotionally powerful. And I think a lot of that comes from the music.
HULLFISH: Did you temp music in at all?
HIRSCH: [Herrmann] wouldn’t have it. On Sisters, we temped with Marnie and Psycho and some other things. He heard one note and he jumped out of his chair and screamed at us to turn it off. That was quite something. He didn’t want any music. Knowing that, we didn’t put anything in. So we were watching the picture dry and then Hermann started to chuckle. Brian says, “What’s so funny, Benny?” It wasn’t a funny scene. “Why are you laughing?” [Herrmann] says, “I’m just thinking that I can hear all the music now and you have to wait six weeks to hear it.”
Obsession was interesting from an editorial standpoint because when we finished the picture and the producer shopped it around — it was an independent production — he couldn’t get anybody to pick it up. He showed it to all the studios and they all turned it down.
There was a wedding sequence in the original cut of the film. (SPOILER ALERT). It turns out that Cliff and Genevieve are father and daughter, so the studios went, “Oh my God! We can’t put this out.” Incest is a taboo they would not violate.
So I had the idea of turning the wedding scene into a dream sequence. We had a shot of Cliff asleep. So instead of using the establishing shot of the house where we wedding takes place, we took that out and replaced it with the shot of Cliff sleeping and did a ripple dissolve and now it’s a dream. He’s dreaming of his obsession to marry this woman as opposed to actually recording a factual event. So by substituting one shot, the producer was able to take it back and Columbia picked it up for distribution.
HULLFISH: That is a fascinating story.
HIRSCH: Changing one shot changed the whole reaction to the film.
HULLFISH: The pace of Obsession was very deliberate, but there were two places where it definitely picked up: one was a fast sequence in the back-and-forth between Bujold’s eyes and the eyes of a painting she’s looking at. And then the other one was, of course, the climax at the airport.
HIRSCH: Both of the sequences are based on intercutting. When Brian shot Genevieve creeping around the house, she’s trying to understand her childhood. He shot a long slow zoom into her eyes. And he did a long slow zoom into the portrait of her mother and I thought, well I can’t just play them back to back. So I intercut them. I thought it worked out rather well.
HULLFISH: Yes. I loved it.
HIRSCH: I have to point out to you, Steve, that this was back in the day when you couldn’t scroll a shot. So you had to cut it so that it didn’t feel like you were backing up or jumping ahead. It had to feel like one continuous motion even though you’re going back and forth between the two shots. I wanted it to feel like one long zoom — the two would comprise one long zoom. It would have been a lot easier on an Avid because if you cut short or too deep, you could roll the shot or just trim it.
On film, we had to be much more certain of where to make the cut. You were making a decision that COULD be unmade but it was not as simple as working digitally. Because of that, a premium was placed on editors who could cut in the right place the first time and not have to fiddle around. Actually, in the old studio days, pictures were cut by the studio — not by the director. The director would finish shooting on a Friday and Monday he’d be off shooting another film. The film would go to the editing department, which was usually headed by someone like Margaret Booth or Barbara McLean. Some of these department heads had enormous power. She would assign the pictures to various editors and in those days all the splices were made by hot splice, which meant that you had to cut in the middle of the frame in order to make the edit.
HULLFISH: And you would not get that frame back.
HIRSCH: Right. So if you wanted to extend a shot because you had cut it too short, your assistant would need to put a frame of black leader to make up for the frame you had dropped, to keep the length consistent with the sound and with the picture negative. The studio would count the number of black frames in your work print, and if you had too many black frames, that wasn’t good!
I mean, obviously it’s better to have a perfect film rather than a perfect work print, but I used to pride myself on not having too many unnecessary splices.
HULLFISH: Is there anything else that you bring with you from your film background to non-linear in that you are better able to see the scene in the dailies or see the structure of a scene without putting it together?
HIRSCH: I think I always had an ability to do that. It’s hard for me to separate 50 years of experience from having worked in film. I don’t know how much that played into it or not.
My first picture came out in 1970. My first computer film was 1995 so my career has been 25 years on film and almost 25 years on the computer.
HULLFISH: There’s a great long pan at the memorial tombstone at Pontchartrain Memorial Park in Obsession.
HIRSCH: That’s to show passage of time. It starts out with him building this park — you see the bulldozer moving earth and lowering the monument into place and the camera does a 360 and there’s (supposed to be) an invisible wipe so when the camera comes back around it’s 20 years later and the park is fully landscaped. It was intended to be a seamless join and look like one shot.
HULLFISH: I was thinking of it as needing that time just for the audience to absorb what’s happened in the scene before it, which is very emotional.
HIRSCH: Yeah. In any story, you need time for things to land. You need time for the audience to get things. A lot of my work now is being called in to help pictures that aren’t working. Often it’s a question of the moments not landing because they go too fast. Sometimes you have to slow down. If the audience is confused, they’ll turn off and they’ll get bored. So even if it’s fast cut, it doesn’t mean that you’re engaging their interest. It’s important to slow down and let the moments land that need to land. Then the audience will be MORE engaged even though the pace is slower.
Accounts in the book illustrate what editors gain from directors with markedly different styles and focus.
“De Palma’s very visually oriented,” Hirsch says, reflecting on the baroque setups used in the bloody prom scene climax of 1976’s “Carrie.”
“In terms of storytelling, George Lucas is extraordinarily gifted in terms of design. De Palma’s very interested in how he moves the camera,” with elaborate tracking shots and set pieces that flew apart to accommodate them.
“While in ‘Star Wars’ I don’t think the camera ever moves within the visual-effects sequences.”
And shots of live actors used mainly just pans across the set, Hirsch recalls.
Although friends have praised the still unpublished project, Hirsch is wary of those who can’t be objective, arguing that Hollywood sometimes falls prey to that trap.
“I don’t think these ‘friends and families’ screenings are very meaningful – I want to hear what the enemies and strangers have to say.”
And then also a brief quote from Hirsch about Falling Down: "Falling Down is very relevant to current events in America today. It is one of my forgotten films, by and large, but I think it was sort of prophetic. And it represented a distinct editing challenge in its own way."
Let us start with a riddle. What is the connection between a blood-soaked Sissy Spacek unleashing a school massacre, the Rebel Alliance pilots desperately attacking the Death Star, Kevin Bacon dancing vigorously to his own beat, Matthew Broderick clowning around in Chicago, Michael Douglas going berserk with guns on Los Angeles streets, Tom Cruise hanging down on a line from a ceiling or Burj Khalifa sky-scraper, and Jamie Foxx working wonders on a piano? The obvious remark is, of course, the inexpressible magic of cinema, but there is also a less abstract answer: the connection is the editor. A man who made sure the abovementioned moments from Carrie, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, Footloose, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Falling Down, Mission: Impossible, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, and Ray were not only a series of moving pictures but also absorbing, internally coherent sequences that arose from what happened earlier in the given film and foreshadowed what would follow next.
Paul Hirsch, as he was the editor of all of these films, has been working in the film industry for half a century, and collaborated with such filmmakers as Brian De Palma, George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Herbert Ross, John Hughes, Joel Schumacher, Taylor Hackford, and Duncan Jones. In the past, he worked with Moviola and other tools available for editors, creating the given picture’s rhythm, mood and audiovisual character by physically cutting and pasting bits of film; now he works with the latest editions of expensive computer software but his style and editor’s creed did not change a bit. What is important is the story and the characters that make it what it is and move forward, irrespective of the film’s genre; the same applies to the low-budget shocking 70s thriller Sisters and recent Hollywood’s fantasy spectacle Warcraft about a war between the orcs and the humans.
During his distinguished career Paul Hirsch was honored with numerous awards and accolades, including an Academy Award® for Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (shared with Marcia Lucas and Richard Chew). We are therefore proud to announce that in a couple of months Paul Hirsch will personally come to Bydgoszcz to accept Camerimage Award to Editor with Unique Visual Sensitivity.
Hirsch’s mentor and the filmmaker who shaped him as an editor and helped in perfecting his skills was Brian De Palma. Starting with 1970's Hi, Mom! they have so far made together eleven feature films, the last being 2000's Mission to Mars. Their projects are often considered masterworks of the art of editing. Like in 1981’s Blow Out, a tale about a sound engineer who is accidently implicated in a politically-motivated murder, in which Hirsch and De Palma created, in parallel with a standard narrative, an amalgam of images and sounds that establishes new ways of interpretation and significantly alters how the story is perceived. Another brilliant example of their work is 1996’s Mission: Impossible, a classic spy thriller made and told in ways of then-modern action films – as in the thrilling and suspenseful sequence of a bold break into the CIA headquarters, or the breathtaking sequence with a helicopter, a train and a narrow tunnel. Hirsch stated in one of his interviews: “Brian taught me a lot about the difference between cutting trailers and cutting features. And my two other great teachers were trial and error.”
Before Paul Hirsch started working as a feature film editor, he had to go through a number of different jobs and learn different ways of his craft. He began his career quite modestly, in a New York-based shipping room. There, he met a negative cutter who took him under his wings as a trainee and taught how to use Moviola, among many other things. This new set of skills opened Hirsch many possibilities, and made it possible to start working for film trailer editor Chuck Workman. He gave Hirsch a task of cutting down a featurette about the making of Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair, and afterwards let him do on his own the same type of material for Ken Hughes’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Then, Hirsch moved onto editing trailers for films like Peter Medak’s Negatives and Brian De Palma’s Greetings, the latter being produced by his brother, Chuck Hirsch.
This was the real beginning of Hirsch and De Palma’s successful, decades-long collaboration that resulted in countless moments of cinematic joy for viewers around the world. And because De Palma was friends with Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas and other rebels of the New Hollywood, soon Hirsch has found himself working on much bigger projects. One of them, the most famous space opera in the history of cinema, made him legendary; he started working on Star Wars as one of three editors, but finished the work on his own. Among the many scenes he was personally responsible for, we can find the annihilation of Alderaan, the famous Mos Eisley cantina duel, the fight for life and death between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader, as well as most of the sequence of the daredevil attack on the Death Star. Academy Award® for Star Wars changed not only Hirsch’s personal and professional life, but also altered the way of thinking of the American film industry that fell in love with this style of editing, elevated soon by Hirsch himself when he worked for George Lucas and Irvin Kershner on the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.
Paul Hirsch always stayed true to his editing creed of adjusting the rhythm and the sense of time and space to the film’s story and the characters’ personalities and emotional arcs. He also made his work invisible to the viewer’s eye, just as any editor should. That is precisely why, after the success of A New Hope, he did not want to lose himself in cutting the latest Hollywood blockbusters. Instead he looked for interesting challenges. He found them aplenty in films such as Herbert Ross’s popular musical Footloose, John Hughes’s buddy comedy Planes, Trains & Automobiles, and Joel Schumacher’s urban thriller Falling Down in which he assisted the director and actor Michael Douglas in infusing the story with the kind of raw energy that made the protagonist’s anger and internal struggle even more palpable. But then Hirsch also used his skills in many other genres, including Steve Miner’s horror-comedy Lake Placid, or Herbert Ross’s comedy-drama Steel Magnolias. He reached another milestone of his career with Taylor Hackford’s Ray, in which the way and the rhythm of cutting were made accordingly with the personality and musical style of Ray Charles. For his work on that film he earned another Academy Award® nomination.
During the last couple of years Paul Hirsch [has] worked mostly on big-budget Hollywood spectacles, but the American editor did not forget the essentials of his job: character motivation and drama, and storytelling that will make the audiences sitting in a dark screening room forget about the problems of everyday life. We are excited that Paul Hirsch will soon visit Bydgoszcz for the 25th anniversary of the International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography CAMERIMAGE. By accepting our Award to Editor with Unique Visual Sensitivity he will join the ranks of such eminent editors as Walter Murch, Martin Walsh, Joel Cox, Alan Heim, Chris Lebenzon, Thelma Schoonmaker, and Pietro Scalia. Additionally, Paul Hirsch will meet the festival’s participants during a Q&A session after the screening of his film, to which event we already sincerely invite everyone attending Camerimage.
Later, Pellegrom asks Hirsch what he thought of the film while working on it, and whether he ever might have guessed that the film would be such a success and that he would win an Oscar for it. "I loved it," replies Hirsch, "but never dreamed it would go on to be the cultural phenomenon it grew into. Brian De Palma was the first person to suggest I would win an Oscar for it. Before that, it had never crossed my mind."
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