Film editing is often called “the invisible art,” as a mastery of the craft often goes unnoticed. Editors whittle dozens, sometimes hundreds, of hours of raw footage down to a feature-length film, setting its pace, tone and message. Michael R. Miller ’74 has edited about 50 films over his storied career, from Manhattan and Raging Bull to modern classics like the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing and Raising Arizona. Miller’s newest film Liberal Arts, helmed by Josh Radnor, is opening at Cinemapolis today. The Sun spoke over the phone with Miller about the nuances of his craft, the proliferation of editing software and his memories as Arts and Entertainment Editor of The Cornell Daily Sun.
The Sun: So, why film editing? There are well-known directors and screenwriters out there, but very few editors. I’m guessing the motive is not fame?
Michael R. Miller: That’s a really good question. There are other Cornell alums who have chosen film editing, Thelma Schoomaker ’61 being probably the most well-known film editor since her work on Raging Bull. Tim Squyres ’81 is also a familiar face among film editors.
I think of all the filmmaking crafts, [editing] is probably the most analytical. That is a skill one picks up as an undergraduate at Cornell, being analytical ... The [film] courses while I was there were more analytical than practical … [and] it was the analytical end I had an affinity for.
Sun: How much input does a director have in the editing process? The Coen brothers now edit all their movies (using the pseudonym “Roderick Jaynes”), so I imagine they have an idea of what they want.
M.R.M.: This is a very complicated issue ... Whether a director is considered an auteur or just a studio hire, what an editor tends to do is execute a director’s vision to the greatest possible extent. It’s not about an editor’s tastes as much as executing [that] vision. Sometimes I’m considering whether or not we need a certain scene in the film or if it’s redundant. Like if we had done it all already in a previous scene or because of the way an actor had performed his or her role, we already get what’s in the text. But again, it is in the service of a particular vision.
With the Coen Brothers, for instance, knowing the tone they wanted was always important. Everything is always a little bit ironic, even when the tone isn’t explicitly comedic ... They are very receptive to suggestions because of their own clarity and vision. I think they know that most suggestions that anyone makes, whether it is the production designer or an actor, cinematographer or editor, are going to be in sync with what they are trying to get out of the material. And also, they like kind of off-the-wall ideas. So they are always listening.
Sun: A small indie movie like Liberal Arts differs from, perhaps the biggest movie you were part of, Armageddon.
M.R.M.: Armageddon was extraordinary. I was one of, I think, seven editors of the film, credited as “Additional Editor.” It was almost a matter of making a deadline and just having a go at certain scenes and showing them to Michael Bay and moving on. That’s an interesting one because, although I will say Michael Bay knows what he wants, he shoots massive amounts of film. For that one, I remember the figure being about a million and a half feet. It becomes impossible for a director to watches all the dailies — there is just not enough time in the day. It is because he shoots multiple cameras, so if you are shooting an hour of film a day, multiply that by four and tack viewing that at the end of a 15 hour work day, and that doesn’t leave any time for sleep. It’s very different.
In the case of Liberal Arts, I believe it was more focused and manageable. It’s the kind of film that requires one editor because it is about nuances of character ... what you did for something that happened on page six has to be reflected for something on page 34. Less so in a film that is “high-concept,” as they say, with the planet being hit by an asteroid. They are both fun, and they both require a lot of focus and attention to detail.
Sun: Digital film editing programs have made the craft more accessible, especially to youth. But what artistic advances have been made in these recent years? Have they been good or bad?
M.R.M.: Well, it’s hard to say. I would say the jury’s out. Hollywood is in a state of flux right now for many, many reasons. They are making fewer of the kind of films like Liberal Arts, [which were] main fare in Hollywood filmmaking up to the ’80s and ’90s. Perhaps from the birth of film through the ’90s. “The love story” and “the complicated relationship movie” — Hollywood stopped making these films. They were the $30 million budget films and [now they either] make the very inexpensive films or tentpole films for hundreds of millions of dollars.
I do not think that is a good thing, and it has to do with marketing, exhibition and how people view movies these days. And what’s viable, as studios don’t want to spend $16 million to market a $30 million movie. That whole realm of filmmaking became relegated to independently-financed filmsIn terms of editing, I don’t really believe the craft has changed. The tools you use have a certain effect on how you edit, but it’s not the same kind of effect you’d hear from listening to a virtuoso violinist play a Stradivarius and then play a lesser violin, or the difference different kind of brushes would make to a painter. A cut is still a cut, whether you made it with an Avid or used a splicer after running your film through a [analog] Moviola.
There’s a great moment in a documentary that ACE, American Cinema Editors, makes every year where, in a panel discussion [of all the year’s Oscar-nominated editors], the editors of Almost Famous and [Dede Allen of] Wonder Boys [were speaking]. The editors of Almost Famous began talking about a time passing montage that they had created [for the movie], and how without the Avid, where we can have multiple layers, a montage like this never could have been created. The editor of the film of the panel discussion cut to Dede Allen’s face and then to a film that she had edited called The Hustler, made in the early 1960s and edited on a Moviola. It had time passing montages ... as complicated as anything that had ever been done on an Avid.
So I think technological changes in film come from economic factors and, artistically, they help many of us get to where the true genius is of our craft ... It is much easier to create a montage with many visual layers on an Avid but it is not necessary.
Sun: Did your editorial experience with The Sun translate into any skills you use in film editing?
M.R.M.: Yes, in many ways. You get to view a lot of films with that job. I think that the best thing for anyone in any film class to do is watch a lot of good film. You get to do that, and there are some bad ones too ... But the editing process is a process of refinement, whether it is a book, newspaper review or a film. One just gets acquainted with the process and [becomes aware] that one small change can have a big effect. In Dede’s time, she simply used her imagination and trial and error, and a very strong knowledge of what things would look like when they came back from the lab.
Sun: Are there any articles you wrote or edited that you have a fond memory of?
M.R.M.: For one of my first assignments, when I was the low man on the totem pole, I reviewed Deep Throat. I can’t believe that. But I did ... It was a funny thing ... a narrative pornography. I don’t think that exists anymore, as far as I know. But they were going for it then.
Sun: You mentioned having Prof. Don Fredericksen, film, who I have today. He told me an anecdote about you, how you were a very politically active ILR student in the ’70s.
M.R.M.: [laughs] I knew it was going to be that one.
Sun: You and your peers took over Carpenter Hall in 1972 in an anti-war protest, yet you snuck out to attend Fredericksen’s seminars. He really praised your dedication. How do you look back at that event nowadays?
M.R.M.: Well, I am still glad that I did it. [The building takeover] was quite successful; one of our demands was that Cornell divest itself of its Gulf oil stock, because Gulf was heavily invested in South Africa, which had an apartheid regime at the time. And we won that demand.
It was a crazy time — I don’t think we’ll see times like that again. But I managed not to hurt the protest and still get to Don’s seminar. Those seminars were great; they were life-changers for all of us who were in them. So, yeah, I feel great about it. [laughs] I feel good that Don and I both have that recollection.