Sun: Thank you again for speaking with the Sun. I was really excited to hear that the editor of such great films like Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing and especially Ghost World —one of my favorites — was coming back to Cornell. So it’s really an honor be able to talk with you today.
Let’s start off with some very general questions since I don’t think editing is something that many people consider when watching a film. Can you tell us how an editor approaches a film and what makes good film editing?
Michael Miller: Ah, those are tough questions. I think every film is different and every film is similar. But you’re right most people don’t consider editing when they watch a film. In fact, editors themselves refer to what we do as the invisible art, and it’s something done always in conjunction with the director of the film.
So what will happen on any given film is there’s a process and it begins with principal photography, where we watch the rushes or the dailies because every shot in every scene is shot multiples times. We review that material with the director and pick the best takes for the best moments and assemble those... Sometimes things are very overstated in the first cut because a good actor can sometimes, in a gesture, say what the writer took two pages to say. So most first cuts are too long and not quite right so the post production process, the part of editing that takes place after the shooting is done, is a matter of refining.
What we really do is try to get the great moments into the film. And that’s sometimes some work because maybe the best reading of a line is in a close-up that doesn’t match the action of the actor. So you work at it and work at it and make sure you do in fact get the best moments of the film.
Sun: So let’s talk about how you got into the editing business. If I remember correctly you got started while you were still at Cornell and were then able to work on some incredible films like Manhattan and Raging Bull.
M.M.: Yes. I was very, very lucky. I was taking I think the history of narrative cinema — well I took every class that Don Fredericksen taught. It was great, and at the end of the year Don mentioned that there was an alumnus in New York that was offering an internship. And I lived in New York at the time, so the summer between my junior and senior year I took this internship; it was at a commercial production house.
I met an assistant editor named Sonya Polonsky, who worked with Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese on the movie Woodstock. I stayed in touch with them and actually went back there after I graduated from Cornell and stayed very close with Sonya. She recommended me to replace herself as assistant editor [for Manhattan], and they accepted that recommendation. It was a great, profound learning experience for me.
We actually edited on film in those days, so the job of the assistant editor was to find pieces of film for the director and editor. In order to cut down the amount of time, the assistant had to be in a room with them. So on my first feature film I got be in a room listening to Susan Morse, the editor at that time, and Woody Allen discussing why they want to cut to the close up of Mariel Hemmingway here, why they stay over the shoulder shot or why they don’t want to cut at all. So listening to that dialogue between a brilliant editor and brilliant director is how I learned what film editing was.
Sun: That sounds like a really excellent opportunity. Do you have advice for aspiring editors, especially now that the industry has changed so much?
M.M.: [Miller responded later via e-mail] Watch great films from all periods in film history and from all nations. Read great novels and great short stories. Do everything you can to become a good storyteller and an excellent judge of good story telling. Narrative filmmakers are, in a word, storytellers. So simply becoming a master of whatever editing software is current doesn't make one an editor. Using Avid or FinalCutPro well won't make one a better filmmaker than a great storyteller who uses a rickety old moviola. A great editor named Dede Allen often shared an anecdote about editing for Robert Wise, himself the editor of Citizen Kane. Wise told her that the three most important aspects of film editing were “story, story and story.” I would add to all of the above, this: where possible, learn the craft from practitioners ... from masters. The traditional way of learning a craft is still the best. Seek internships in cutting rooms and soak it all in. And while you're IN the cutting room, make yourself indispensable.
Sun: Let’s talk a little bit about your work. Did you have a favorite film to work on?
M.M.: You know people always say this but they’re all your babies and you love them all equally. But I have favorites. I loved editing Raising Arizona. I love working with the Coen brothers because they’re as funny in person as their best comedies are.
So if I have to pick one it might be Raising Arizona or Miller’s Crossing but the fact is I love them all. They are all like children in a way. And strangely I would say an average editing schedule from start to finish is nine months so it’s an apt metaphor.
Sun: Speaking of Raising Arizona, for those going to see it on Tuesday, do you have any pointers on what to look out for?
M.M.: I would say just have fun. There’s one thing that struck me that no one ever talks about, but I think I’ll just bring it up after the screening. If you’re a film student think of it in the genre of screwball comedy. As screwball as it is, it has a couple of American Lit references in it. I wonder if anyone will catch them. There are flaws in the film as in any film, but I won’t point them out.
Sun: We’ll have to look forward to Tuesday then. I think that about wraps it up. Any last comments before we sign off?
M.M.: I would say truly that my education in film history and being able to see so many great films in Don’s classes and at Cornell Cinema has always served me well. There tends to be sometimes a mistaken notion that there’s this enormous gulf between academic film work and filmmaking. It’s not as wide a gulf as people think. It’s always been a great help to me to know the great films and be able to think about film in many different kinds of ways. It’s also good to get a great education to know literature well and know many things well. It all informs what you do in your craft.
Sun: Thanks again, Michael. I look forward to seeing you at the Cinema on Tuesday.