Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

March 25, 2016

Reel Talk: A Conversation with Film Editor Rachel Reichman

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After a screening of Hitchcock/Truffaut last week at Cornell Cinema, Sun Staff Writer Mark DiStefano ’16 was fortunate enough to speak with the film’s co-producer and editor, Rachel Reichman. The conversation encompassed favorite films, a liberal arts education, the process of film editing and the nature of art itself.

The Sun: What do you see the essential job of an editor to be?

Rachel Reichman: Well, for every film it’s different. In documentaries of course, the editor is a stronger participant in the storytelling than they are in narrative work. And in fact, the structure is so essential to the storytelling in a documentary that what’s beautiful about it is you can have a kind of gut feeling about it, but move the pieces around and then that will bring about the actual manifestation of what your gut is telling you the story is. And that brings me to one of the most odd and wonderful things about editing, which is that it’s intuitive.

Sun: Where did your journey into the filmmaking world begin? Did you go to film school?

R.R.: Yeah, I went to the School of Visual Arts. I liked movies, but I was not a movie kid. What happened to me was I went to an open school, they called it a free school, when I was in high school in the ’70s, where you could kind of do whatever you wanted and get credit for it. And so I took a college class that was probably an extra credit at Washington University, which was near me, and went somehow to a film class that must have been focused on European cinema, because I remember seeing a bunch of Bergman and Antonioni. And I remember being about fifteen and just being so blown away when I saw Persona and L’Avventura. They just were profound. And I remember going to see at that time, Pasolini’s Salo came out.

Sun: Oh gosh.

R.R.: And Salo is a really disturbing film.

Sun: Very much so.

R.R.: But I was really completely enticed by the process of taking everything I cared about which primarily had been photography and literature. I was interested in photography, psychology, music and literature. I also loved fine art, but photography was my main practical skill and so they all gelled when I became intimate with film.

Sun: Movies combine all the other art forms, don’t they?

R.R.: Yes, and I’ve always been extremely interested in human behavior and emotion.

Sun: So do you think it’s a benefit for students to get a broad liberal arts education as opposed to a specific education in one trade like film or fine arts, because that’s one of the things that Cornell is founded on, is that principle of a very eclectic institution where anybody can find instruction in any study.

R.R.: Yeah. Absolutely. And also I think a good filmmaker is gonna be a person who is interested in everything. As an artist, you want your work to be rich. And I also think that good artists are curious. And when I say ‘being an artist,’ what I mean is that you’re making work that’s personal … [David] Fincher has made some work that he cared very deeply for, and some of it didn’t do so well at the box office, which he talks very specifically about in our film. He says, that first three months, the evaluation of the film is written in stone, and he said that is absolutely not true.

Sun: Right. I just took a look at Zodiac a few weeks ago, and that film is such a hidden gem that was sort of swept under the rug when it was first released.

R.R.: Zodiac is a great movie. I don’t own a ton of movies, and I have a couple copies of it. I just adore that movie. On so many levels I think it’s extraordinary.

Sun: To get into Hitchcock/Truffaut, what was the genesis of that project and how did you become involved?

R.R.: Well in fact, the project was originated by some other people. As you may have noticed, it has a co-writing credit of a man named Serge Toubiana. Serge is the man who was the director of the Cinémathèque Française [from 2003 to 2015]. He was put in touch with the original tapes of the conversation between Truffaut and Hitchcock, which took place in ’62. This was maybe 15 years ago, or at least that’s when it came to public light, and this was I think 27, 28 hours of material. And at that point, an American producer named Gail Levine, who our film is dedicated to, she began to collaborate with Serge about a concept to make a film using the tapes as a kind of spine, if you will, of the structure. And about three years ago Gail died of cancer. And it happened very quickly. And what happened was that the French television company involved began to search for a partner in the States and a new director. They teamed up with Charles Cohen, a wonderful guy who had started a company a while ago in distribution [Cohen Media Group]. [Cohen] is on the board of the New York Film Society, and Kent [Jones] is the director of the New York Film Festival. Kent had just about four years ago finished a film that I was lucky to be involved with called A Letter to Elia, which is about Elia Kazan. So since Kent had made at least one film [about a historical film figure] — he also made a wonderful film about the producer Val Lewton that he produced. Wonderful film, highly recommend it.

Sun: The first time I had heard of Kent’s work actually was when I read his essay on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, another Fincher film which was released by Criterion which I actually love and I think is very underrated. I think that was the first Criterion DVD I ever bought, when I was like fourteen years old and was amazed — wow, it comes with a book too? — and there was Kent’s wonderful essay on the film.

R.R.: I will buy that immediately. I don’t own a copy of that and I just decided I need own the Fincher stuff, partly because I want the extras. And Kent’s extras are so good! But back to the film, Charles Cohen asked Kent, would you like to be involved, Kent was instantly thrilled, because that’s a dream come true to be asked to work on such a thing, and then Kent asked me if I wanted to be involved and wonderfully I was free and said absolutely!

Sun: What sort of research did you do?

R.R.: We had a huge amount of research to undertake. We dug into every aspect of both Hitchcock and Truffaut’s work, but of course the Hitchcock material would dominate. Which included Kent and I going out to LA to do three of the interviews [in the film] — Bogdanovich, Fincher and James Gray … and we also went to the Academy Archive and spent about nine or ten in a very intense long day looking at the Hitchcock collection. Obviously, we could have spent a week.

Sun: That is a film lover’s dream.

R.R.: It was a film lover’s dream. I was dead [by the end of it]. But it was fantastic, also getting to look at the original scripts and things like that was just a blessing. Of course what you do is you bring in everything, which means thousands and thousands of photographs which come from dozens of sources, you try to get inside people’s personal archives, and the unfortunate thing is that much more than 99% of that is never going to make it into the film. Only a small fraction will. We found such beautiful stuff in Hitchcock’s personal archives.

Sun: One of the things I was very impressed by was the archival footage you had of Hitchcock with his family, crawling with his daughter on his back, that was a wonderful insight into who he was as a human being.

R.R.: There’s a lot of great footage of him from the family movies, and that’s why I joked with Kent about making a sequel. And I think that [some] would have been happier if the film was another 20 minutes long.

Sun: I would have watched a three hour version of this film.

R.R.: It could have been, and it could have been very interesting, but Kent likes concision.

Sun: Absolutely — this film is so condensed and so fluid, and that’s a credit to both you and Kent for condensing so much information into an 80 minute runtime, which I really admire. A very tight film.

R.R.: Yes because we kept taking things out, but in fact there wasn’t tons of information that got left on the cutting room floor. I think the hardest part was, how do you get the richest, most salient points in, and not burden the film with an unwieldy shape. And again, Kent wasn’t interested in some sort of cookie-cutter history. It’s just not his thing, he wanted to make a movie, and by gosh, he did! In terms of structure, we began with the pieces where there was a kind of potent spark. If you look at it, this is not a traditional shape [for a film]. It kind of loops around twice, we do a very quick little history — just to encapsulate what the film was going to be about, to kind of get people settled. How do you nail that thesis — it’s different for every single documentary. A very conventional documentary would have five central characters, pre-title sequence say, “What was the reason that Robert Moses wanted to expand the highways?!” and then, “What was he up against?!” and, “He was a bastard! — He was a genius!” And then you have the title of the movie. We were hell-bent on not going that route. The great thing was, Kent and I both love starting movies with something that captures the essence of what we’re interested in, which is a film clip. Something that just gets the spirit, the heartache, the fear and the craving, the beauty and the artistry — BAM — right up front.

Sun: Insofar as the interviews went, how did you decide on which famous directors to interview, because there are so many masters you have in the film.

R.R.: Those were Kent’s decisions. The one thing I weighed in on was that there was an idea at the beginning to include a lot of people who were not directors. Some of the actors [from Hitchcock’s films] are still alive, there are lots of good scholars on these guys, and someone could have made a good film going that route. But somehow … it just made perfect sense to me to include directors only. First of all, we were not interested in people simply singing melodically about Hitchcock.

Sun: There’s a great way to put it. I just think if it’s a film about the craft of filmmaking and how near and dear that is to people, it would make sense to interview filmmakers!

R.R.: Exactly. It’s kind of a no-brainer. The other thing is, Kent has a really terrific rapport with every one of those people, they’re all friends. We made this film very quickly — it was done in significantly less than a year, 10 months or something. When I think of it now, it’s just madness, frankly. But, you know, it is what it is and it was great to do under those terms. We really wanted a couple more months to edit and now I see things on the screen that I wish I could change — the fine-tuning things, like the framing of some of the photographs [in the film], they drive me crazy.

Sun: Those are the things that I’m sure only you or Kent would notice, because I have to tell you, no one else notices.

R.R.: But back to the question of the directors, there were people we asked who weren’t available; there were several women directors who we asked, and for a variety of reasons they weren’t free. Some of them were in production, some of them didn’t want to do an interview on camera, some felt they couldn’t speak to Hitchcock, and that was a big disappointment for me, and other people. But there was nothing we could do, and we didn’t have time! We didn’t have another six months to pursue them. But all of these guys, their work — the thing Kent said which is a little nuanced, is the idea of people at least being in the same universe [as Hitchcock]. Someone might say, what does Rick Linklater’s work have to do with Hitchcock? But his concept of a movie fits into the same idea. Somehow there is a legacy there, a tradition. What it has to do with is, can [these directors] speak about it spontaneously and extemporaneously — was the word Kent used — can they go there? And that’s where Kent’s personal relationship with someone like Rick Linklater or James Gray — he knows them, he’s had those conversations. So what it also meant was there weren’t a lot of gambles; we didn’t interview anybody who didn’t make it into the film. And normally we would have; we would’ve interviewed at least another five people, because we would’ve taken that gamble.

Sun: I have to tell you as an aspiring filmmaker myself and a big film fan, it was wonderfully invigorating to see all these great directors talk about the legacy of Hitchcock and how it impacted their work, because it’s sort of like passing the torch.

R.R.: Absolutely.

Sun: But twice. You have Hitchcock passing it to them, and then them throwing down the gauntlet to us, and talking about how they love the cinema the same way that he did, and that’ll inspire the same thing in somebody who watches this movie. I do think it has the ability to get people excited and talking about cinema.

R.R.: I’m glad to hear that. There’s one thing I wanted to go back to, when you were talking about the length of the movie, and the concision … that was a tricky one for me, because I wanted the film to open up more. And Kent wanted it to move like a railroad train. And we never had an argument about it, we actually don’t argue, that’s not the way we work, but that was a little bit of an issue. Of course as the director, Kent’s decision was the final one and my job is to get his vision on screen, but my job is also to bring to it my perspective. In that sense the editor saves the director from themself sometimes. So I was really really glad that he and I could work together, and when something didn’t work for him he’d say so.
Sun: Yeah, I think the editor should probably feel free to disagree with the director, but that’s where the conversation happens, and ultimately the improvement.

Mark DiStefano is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]