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
FFC rating: 8/10
by Paul Hirsch
by Bill Chambers "You know what's a great cut?" I said to the editor of my student film--or he said to me, I can't remember now. Conversations frequently began this way in our cluttered editing room, a glorified broom closet we'd decorated with, among other things, a life-size cardboard cutout of Mr. Spock and the poster for Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron. Anyway, the answer to that rhetorical question was the opening of Casualties of War: a stark cut from black to a shot inside a subway car, where Michael J. Fox, the movie's star, is Where's Waldo?-ed amongst the passengers. The other person enthusiastically concurred; it was an incredible bonding moment between us, realizing we'd each recognized the power of this relatively obscure and deceptively simple moment. Since Paul Hirsch had edited so many Brian De Palma films, including his then-recent Mission: Impossible, we assumed it was his handiwork. (Smart-phone technology for checking these things instantly did not yet exist.) A different De Palma veteran, Bill Pankow, cut Casualties of War, as it turned out, but our misapprehension sparked a discussion of the legitimate work of Paul Hirsch, who soon became the patron saint of Casa Spock. Hirsch had edited the kinds of films us Gen-X cinephiles internalized like radio hits, and even though we were cutting a dopey little student film, we aspired to his rhythmic grace, which remains somewhat overshadowed by sheer popularity when it comes to his biggest credits (Star Wars, Footloose, Planes, Trains & Automobiles).
While I hope that Pankow one day writes his own industry memoir, in the meantime we have Hirsch's 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 (hereafter A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away....), and it's a delight. This isn't an editing manifesto like Walter Murch's In the Blink of an Eye; Hirsch's most erudite material is presented up front in an introduction that considers how editing is "the only aspect of filmmaking without deep roots in some earlier art form" and offers insight into the editor's place on the Hollywood food chain, providing valuable context for the various power struggles recollected throughout the book. (Crediting My Cousin Vinny director Jonathan Lynn with the metaphor, Hirsch compares editors to the Queen of England in that they have influence without power.) The bulk of A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away.... finds Hirsch recapping his career title by title, in chronological order, although he elides a few credits (The Money, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, Lake Placid) and skims the surface of others (Hard Rain is curtly dealt with in two sentences). It's reminiscent of Don Siegel's great A Siegel Film in terms of both its structure and its occasionally sardonic tone. Like Siegel, Hirsch does not suffer fools gladly and can be quite droll in expressing his exasperation towards others. At a screening of Herbert Ross's The Secret of My Success for Tom Pollock, the head of Universal, Hirsch tells Pollock the film currently runs "one-forty," meaning one hour and forty minutes. Afterwards, Pollock tells him it's in good shape, he just needs to cut forty minutes out. "Herbert and I looked at each other, puzzled," Hirsch writes. "It seems that Pollock thought I had meant a hundred and forty minutes, or two hours and twenty minutes. I found it disturbing that Pollock's internal clock couldn't tell the difference."
Like Siegel, he's good at caricature. Hirsch tells you exactly how he feels about people by the way he quotes them. The "Shmyers," Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers, are constantly peppering their requests on the disastrous I Love Trouble with "booba" ("They were the only people I ever heard pronounce it that way"), while agent turned producer George Litto, who had a hand in several De Palma pictures, has all his dialogue tagged with a skeevy little grunt. "'Look at that, Paul, nnh?' he said, turning to me. 'Your pal here is turning down $50,000, nnh?'" (Emphasis Hirsch's.) That $50,000, by the way, is what Litto offered De Palma to let someone else direct Obsession. De Palma stuck to his guns, of course; in Hirsch's telling, De Palma is nothing if not wilful, for better or worse, and like many of the book's supporting characters, he proves a mercurial figure, though his rejections clearly sting Hirsch more than anybody else's. Hirsch considers him a mentor, but their careers were on parallel tracks from almost the beginning, and many of the lessons Hirsch learned on De Palma's films he seems to have learned on his own. On the ill-fated Obsession, for instance, he realized that you could transform an actual incest movie into a theoretical one by changing a single shot, which impressed De Palma at first but eventually contributed to his loss of interest in the project. On De Palma's Carrie, Hirsch discovered that showing the arc of a hammer in a swinging motion was much more dynamic than showing the impact of the hammer's blows, and he made the climax easier to watch by scaling back the number of split-screens. Though De Palma and Hirsch had assembled a version of the sequence that was entirely in split-screen, friends had echoed the studio's complaint that it was too much of a good thing, and De Palma huffily left Hirsch to cut it however he wanted. Maybe this is why De Palma became unreceptive to Hirsch's suggestions down the road: to prevent him from developing a reputation for salvaging De Palma's work.
De Palma figures heavily in not only the chapters about his own films but also the one about Star Wars, arguably the book's centrepiece and major selling point. (Its publication coincides with the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.) Hirsch muses that some people would kill to have been in his wife's shoes as she sat behind Hirsch and George Lucas in the editing room, oblivious to history in the making as she concentrated on her knitting, but he manages to evoke this fly-on-the-wall perspective for the reader. His eyewitness account of the lunch that followed a screening of Star Wars for a who's who of the movie brat generation (minus Martin Scorsese, who chickened out at the last minute) is a scream and clears up a lot of hearsay surrounding that fateful day. De Palma was there, cracking wise about the film with no regard for Lucas's fragile ego. Perhaps remorsefully, he stayed behind that afternoon to help rewrite the opening crawl with former TIME critic Jay Cocks and American Graffiti screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz.
Star Wars ended in Oscar victory for Hirsch and co-editors Marcia Lucas and Richard Chew, and Hirsch would subsequently fly, er, solo on The Empire Strikes Back. Nevertheless, he didn't get to cut Return of the Jedi because of a dispute between Lucas and the DGA, and neither his Academy Award nor his affiliation with the blockbuster franchise opened doors for Hirsch the way he thought it would. A major theme of the book, exacerbated by Hirsch being a New York transplant seeking employment in California (the coastal unions are as territorial as hip hop groups), is how "jobs were just a respite from having to look for work," and although the struggle stave off unemployment is a common one for below-the-line talent, I can't remember another memoir so candid about it. (Hirsch cites a passage from editor Sam O. Steen's autobiography about how up-and-coming filmmakers would call in the elderly Steen for a job interview just to hear stories about the old days.) Hirsch might be his own worst enemy, though: Following a miserable time on De Palma's Blow Out, he vows to never again say "yes" to a script he doesn't like no matter who the director is, leading to fallow periods that get longer as Hirsch gets older (i.e., as the industry grows ever more vapidly commercial) and mad scrambles that find him coming up with alternative job titles to justify working on trash, or at least his idea of trash. I personally like World War Z, a film Hirsch apparently improved yet rendered unreleasable by shaving it down to 72 minutes!
It's possible, too, that Hirsch is more difficult than he realizes. On the drive home from the Star Wars editing room one day, his wife speaks up: "Honey, you've got to let George win some of the time." Hirsch reflects on this and generally disagrees with it. He can be catty when describing past collaborators--he throws Joel Schumacher to the #MeToo wolves shortly after comparing him and his assistant, Guy Ferland, to Dr. Evil and Mini-Me--to the point where I wondered whether Danny Elfman barred him from the writing sessions on the Mission: Impossible score for some other reason than to avoid spoiling the broth with too many cooks. Certainly, Hirsch doesn't mince words in expressing his opinions, something that earned him the ire of Apocalypse Now-era Francis Ford Coppola (when, to be fair, Coppola was at his most insufferable). On turning down Schumacher's The Lost Boys: "I've always thought vampire movies were the stupidest of all genres, and I hoped never to work on one." On the screenplay for Daredevil: "I got to page 4 and put it down. It was stupid and boring." On Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, on which he was one of several editors: "Why World War Z got better reviews, I will never understand. It's about zombies!" Although there's a tang to his snobbery against genre elements that may have younger readers mouthing "OK, boomer," he appears to relish having young apprentices--such as daughter Gina Hirsch--and working with young filmmakers, with the final chapters recounting pleasant experiences with Duncan Jones (on Source Code and Warcraft) and even spoof-meisters Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, whom he affectionately calls "the boys." And however tempting it may be to do so, his state-of-the-union address at the end of A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away.... does not deserve to be dismissed as the ravings of a curmudgeon. Hirsch is justifiably concerned with the democratization of editing technology cheapening the perception of his life's work, and I share his overall concern with the "'disruptive' (read 'destructive') effects of the digital revolution." His examples include the legacy of the digital intermediate (DI): "Less care is taken with lighting on set [now]. Subtleties of light and shadow are achieved when taking the dailies into the DI suite... The new technology enables directors to focus unnecessarily on details in unproductive ways[.]"
A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away.... isn't all doomsaying, of course. Mostly, it's a chummy stroll down memory lane that doubles as a guided tour through a half-century of popular cinema from an oft-neglected perspective. Hirsch seems to especially savour the ironies and eureka moments that are endemic to his profession. He supports De Palma's decision to ban Tom Cruise from the cutting room on Mission: Impossible, only to have Cruise change his entire outlook on editing with a stray observation at a preview screening of the film. On The Empire Strikes Back, another offhand remark from director Irvin Kershner--"Physical difficulty is boring!"--hits Hirsch like a bolt of lightning, and he realizes that watching actors struggle is only interesting in a suspense context. In addition, Hirsch is clear-eyed about the symbiosis between editing and music, and some of his best stories involve his misadventures in temp tracks (temporary music choices meant to nudge the composer or music supervisor in a specific direction). John Williams takes to them like a duck to water, David Shire bristles at them, and Bernard Herrmann, whose genius and madness are given equal due in an unexpectedly moving account of his volatile friendship with Hirsch, resents being asked to compete with himself when he hears a passage from his Psycho score over footage from De Palma's Sisters. I disagree with Hirsch that Katrina and the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine" should've been in Ferris Bueller's Day Off rather than "Beat City" by The Flowerpot Men--the former was maddeningly inescapable in the late-'80s and in fact showed up in Hirsch's next film, The Secret of My Success--but can't fault his defense for temping the race in The Black Stallion Returns with a veritable cliché, the theme from Chariots of Fire: "I am more concerned with getting the desired effect than with avoiding the obvious."
My only serious quibble with the book is that Hirsch's own editors aren't always looking out for him. Early on, while enumerating a colleague's achievements, he erroneously adds Al Pacino to the cast of Coppola's The Cotton Club. He refers to Warner Bros.' Twister as "like [Mission: Impossible], a Paramount release," and later claims that separate studios produced Universal's Warcraft and their 2017 reboot of The Mummy, both of which he edited. And as much as I love Hirsch's tales out of school, I fail to see the point of a lengthy anecdote about former 20th Century Fox chairman Joe Roth taking a poker loss badly and hope it didn't come at the expense of better material. Fortunately, good material is not in short supply here. As an insatiably curious fan of John Hughes, I can't say I had many questions left after the chapters on Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Planes, Trains & Automobiles. But what really surprised me was how much I enjoyed reading about the making of the terrible Footloose--the first of four films Hirsch edited for Herbert Ross, who comes across as vaguely tragic in spite of his many successes--and how curious I was to revisit it afterwards. You know something? It's brilliantly cut.
384 pages; November, 2019; ISBN: 978-1-64160-258-7; Chicago Review Press