February 7, 2008

The Cornell Connection: Tom Swartwout '86

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Anxious about what to do with your life? Have no fear. Tom Swartwout ’86 didn’t know what he was going to do until late on in his Cornell experience, and now he’s the regular film editor for legendary director Sydney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network). Most recently he worked with Lumet on the critically lauded Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, starring Ethan Hawke and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, about two brothers with money troubles who decide to knock off their parents’ Westchester jewelry store, with tragic results. Swartwout will be introducing the film tonight at 7:15 in Willard Strait Hall when it’s screened for Cornell Cinema.

The Sun: You were a Film Studies major [at Cornell]?
Tom Swartwout: No, I wasn’t. I was in government. My major was government. I took one class in the Film program with [Prof.] Marilyn Rivchin [Senior lecturer, Filmmaking] who’s still a professor there now and I think by the time I took the class I was starting to be very interested in film. There was a club called IthMac — I don’t believe it’s still around anymore — but you could use their equipment and make shorts of your own, so I had done that a little bit, and had worked on friends’ movies, both that were film majors, and had just taken a couple of classes, and I had decided that by the time I had graduated that’s what I was gonna start pursuing.
I moved to New York pretty much right away, made a short on my own with some friends from Cornell that had just graduated, and some were still seniors, and used that experience to then — I was waiting tables and bartending — and used my editing experience — because I had done more of that than I had done of anything else, because [when] you’re making a movie of your own you spend more time editing it than you do shooting.
So I ended up, through a friend who was also a Cornellian, he said ‘Hey, where I’m working, they’re looking for assistants.’ So I went and interviewed and for a couple of years I worked on commercials, and then, because I became fairly proficient with a piece of software that had just been developed for editing, I used to give demonstrations to people about how to use the software. And a guy came in named Sam O’Steen, and it turns out he was a big Hollywood editor. He was editing something for Mike Nichols at the time. He’d edited Roman Polanski. And I gave him a demonstration, and a couple of weeks later he called and offered me a job working in his cutting room.
And so I worked for Sam for about four years. And in the course of working with him, [I] ended up meeting a lot of directors. And Sydney [Lumet], in the fourth year pretty much, he hired me. Sam had cut Night Falls on Manhattan and I was in the cutting room — at that time I was his first assistant — and on the next movie, Sydney offered me to edit. It was 1995 or 1996. And since then I’ve been working with Sydney.
Sun: I was going to ask about that actually. What’s it like working with a legend like Sydney Lumet?
T.S.: Well, you know, it helps that my first exposure to feature films was with Sam [O’Steen]. Even though editors aren’t really known, but Sam, in the editing world, was a pretty big deal. He edited Chinatown, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, Catch-22, Rosemary’s Baby, uh, The Graduate. So lots of fairly impressive movies from the ’60s and ’70s. And Sam was in his 70s when I met him, and he chose not to learn how to use the [editing] software, but now everybody was using it, so I ended up being his hands in the cutting room. So my very first experience was Mike Nichols and Sam, hangin’ out, day after day, so you sort of get — this is gonna sound weird, but [you] no longer feel like they’re legends. They’re just people that are just like — it’s the obvious thing — they’re just like everybody else. It’s been a great time, working with Sydney.
Sun: The one thing that’s interesting about the Film Studies program at Cornell is that it’s more of a liberal arts program.
T.S.: Right, it definitely is. I think the whole department can tell you. You don’t go to Cornell for production; you’re going because it has a great liberal arts program. And it was even less of a department when I was there. [Prof.] Marilyn [Rivchin, Senior lecturer, Filmmaking] had fewer courses, and I think there were fewer teachers. The equipment was, it was fine, but there were not computers at that time or anything. You cut [film] with a razor blade.
Your life experience will inform the work you do later on. If you chose to make movies later on, then all the knowledge you get here, you can then apply. Learning how to work the camera, how to run the software and computer, it can only take you so far. Truthfully, it’s only a couple of weeks of work. I mean, you can explore it. For professional school, I think it makes sense — for film school — but it does seem sometimes that an undergraduate program would be wasted to have a full-blown production, even though I know there are plenty of people who do it.
Sun: What was it that you liked best about Cornell? Was it making movies with your friends, or some other facet of the experience?
T.S.: Well obviously I liked it, because we’ve [my family] chosen to move back here — I now have two kids. And I think Ithaca is a much richer community because of Cornell.
My experience at Cornell? I met a lot of great people.
I came to film pretty late in that experience. It really was my junior year that I started doing stuff with some other people. You can’t get into the classes unless you’re a junior or senior. I really didn’t have much of a background at all, so when I talked to Marilyn, I decided I’d have to make something and show it to her, otherwise [I was just] a government major with very little background. So I made one short, and I showed it to her.
Oh, I remember what I really loved about Cornell, was Cornell Cinema. It’s an incredible program. I think that was one of the more memorable parts of my Cornell experience in part because it is what I pursued. I pursued a career in film. I think when people often talk about how when they were a child they were captivated by movies for me that happened at Cornell from the wide variety of things and the venues were. They have so many different kinds of movies. I was taken by them. I would try and go several times a week, often three or four times a week and I would see movies from all over the world and I didn’t have that opportunity growing up and it was all right there on campus so I think that was in some ways in terms of my film education that was a huge contribution to it.
Sun: Now you were a government major at Cornell and what are the other kinds of things you were exploring before you settled on film?
T.S.: I did have a concentration in international relations I did seriously think about. I guess early on I was thinking about some kind of career in, not politics but in government but it was all really uninformed, I didn’t know really what I was gong to do.
I liked a lot of professors in the Government department and there were a lot of things that I was interested in, like foreign affairs, international relations, all that stuff its interesting.
I guess I could tell you what is applicable to what I do now, When I am able to do current affairs documentaries, I don’t get a chance to do a lot of them but once in a while, I still always love it when I’m fortunate enough to do something in that area, it still sparks my interest the way it did when I was an undergraduate.
Sun: Now this film you just made, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. It’s, obviously, a pretty intense experience, I think I can say without giving much away. Is there any advice you’d give to someone going into the movie?
T.S.: Well, no … [laughs] not really. I think its better to go in with a clean slate. It rarely helps you to have expectations going into a movie, and I think the best experiences [watching movies] are when you go in knowing absolutely nothing about it.
Sun: That’s true. That’s very true.
T.S.: I do think that this was my favorite [movie to edit]. It is the best movie I’ve worked on with Sydney, so I’d probably say it was.