When The Shooting Stops ... The Cutting Begins

A Film Editor's Story


By Ralph Rosenblum

By Robert Karen

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The story of one of the most important and least-understood jobs in moviemaking-film editing-is here told by one of the wizards, Ralph Rosenblum, whose credentials include six Woody Allen films, as well as The Pawnbroker, The Producers, and Goodbye, Columbus. Rosenblum and journalist Robert Karen have written both a history of the profession and a personal account, a highly entertaining, instructive, and revelatory book that will make any reader a more aware movie-viewer.



After editing over 35 feature films, from Long Days Journey Into Night and The Pawnbroker to Goodbye Columbus and six of Woody Allen’s first seven films, RALPH ROSENBLUM is now a director. His recent work includes Summer Solstice with Henry Fonda and Myrna Loy, as well as two productions of the American Short Story for PBS and one American Playhouse production. He is visiting professor of film production at the State University of New York at Purchase.

ROBERT KAREN has written extensively on politics, film, and psychology. His articles have appeared in New York Magazine, Gentlemen’s Quarterly, the Nation, Vogue, Savvy, the Washington Post, Newsday, and elsewhere. He is a contributing editor of Cosmopolitan, and he teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York City. His next book is about experiences of power and insecurity in everyday life.

The authors are now collaborating on a documentary film about a student uprising of the sixties.

...the Cutting

    A Film Editor’s Story

                  Ralph Rosenblum and
                             Robert Karen


For my mother, Davida, Emily, and Paul


For my mother and my father



The Hands behind the Seams

“Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in the cutting room,” is a prayer that’s been uttered in every language, on every location, in every country where films have been made. Shooting a film is the most expensive entertainment production ever devised. When mistakes are made, or scenes fall short of the director’s vision, the immense cost of doggedly pursuing the cinematic fantasy on the set (as wages of cameramen, performers, set directors, makeup artists, and scores of assistants and associates accumulate at union-scale tempo) dampens even the most ambitious director’s desire for perfection. And so the cutting room becomes the last-stand corral for everyone’s hopes that the unrealized dreams, the dead moments, the inevitable blah sequences from weeks of shooting will finally be brought to life.

But cutting is only marginally a matter of “fixing.” When it came into being in 1902, film editing transformed motion pictures from a recording medium into an art form. In its simplest aspect, cutting is about juxtapositions. A man awakens suddenly in the middle of the night, bolts up in bed, stares ahead intensely, and twitches his nose. If you cut now to an image of clouds drifting before the full moon, the audience is primed for a wolf-man adventure. If you cut to a room where two people are desperately fighting a billowing blaze, the viewers realize that through clairvoyance, a warning dream, or the smell of smoke, the man in bed has become aware of danger. If you cut to a distraught wife defending her decision to commit her husband to a mental institution, they will understand that the man in bed is her husband and that the dramatic tension will surround the couple. If you’re editing an Alfred Hitchcock movie, the juxtaposition of the man and his wife will immediately raise questions in the viewers’ minds about foul play on the part of the woman. If you then cut back to a hospital aide ordering the man out of bed for breakfast, the audience will already be searching for hints about the man’s mental state and expecting a significant clue to arise from this interaction.

The cutting room is the domain of the film editor, a man or woman barely known outside the film industry. He is often an introverted and cautious individual who may think of himself as a talented technocrat, a guardian of the tough, mechanical facts of cinematic technique; or as a behind-the-scenes power, like a president’s brain truster, unsung but indispensable; or as a creative genius in his own right, a star whose light is blocked by the medieval movie protocol that gives directors and actors almost exclusive credit for a film’s success. Whatever his self-image, a key part of his job in the months he will spend absorbed in the seemingly endless footage will be to make his own contribution as imperceptible as possible. No viewer should walk out of that film saying, “I really dug the editing.” The final product should have a natural seamless effect, as if it were originally shot just the way it looks on the screen. And if an advertisement ever announces that the film has won an Academy Award for editing, the name of the editor will probably not be mentioned. He inhabits an anonymous world, and various aspects of the trade conspire to keep him anonymous.

Of course, within the movie business a certain amount of lore has built up about the implacable technicians, the strung-out geniuses, the “doctors,” the “firemen,” the men with “magic hands,” and the marvelous feats of filmic endurance and transformation that have gone on in those bleak, windowless cells where most pictures have been cut. Hollywood buffs may have learned that editor Elmo Williams was a major factor in the success of High Noon, that he was responsible for the picture’s strict correspondence between screen time and real time, and that his device of cutting repeatedly to the old courthouse clock created much of the fantastic tension in that famous film. They may have heard of Merrill White, who was called in one day in 1953 by executives at RKO and asked if he could salvage a disaster called The Brave One. “I'II need a year,” White is supposed to have said after viewing the original version. Already known as an irascible technician who would curse and threaten a film that gave him trouble, White probably set a record for editorial rage when, several months into The Brave One, he came roaring out of his second-floor stall, emerged on the balcony with his Moviola in tow, and in a superhuman frenzy dumped the unbudgeable three-hundred-pound machine to its destruction. (His re-edited version won the author, Dalton Trumbo, an Oscar in 1954.) A very different sort of editor, the ever dapper Paul Falkenberg, is still remembered with delight by film workers in New York. An intimidating, no-nonsense old-timer who once landed me a job cutting the Guy Lombardo TV show, Falkenberg is best recalled for an incident that occurred when MCA invited him to rescue a horrid underseas adventure. The short, balding, penguin-shaped wizard stepped briskly into the screening room, dispensed with the niceties, and proceeded to endure the film. Then, with the lights back on and his features still set in the formal mode of a high-priced surgeon about to deliver a considered opinion, the master announced, “From shit you get shit!” and marched out.

Every so often, in the film magazines, texts, and professional journals, a story arises about a timely feat of editing. And thus those who care about such things may know that during the filming of the climactic chase scene in Bullitt, an out-of-control car filled with dummies tripped a wire which prematurely sent a costly set up in flames, and that editor Frank Keller salvaged the near-catastrophe with a clever and unusual juxtaposition of images that made the explosion appear to go off on time. They may have heard that in 1963, when I was cutting Fail Safe, the U.S. Defense Department refused to provide me with crucial footage of bombers taking off, and to compensate for the gap I had to take a single piece of stock film with one Air Force plane in it—something I found in a film library—blow it up to various sizes, flop it over, crop the image in several ways, and cut together all these perspectives until it appeared that whole squadrons of bombers were taking off all around the country. They may know of certain movie episodes that owe their emotional power to virtuoso editing: the famous eating scene in Tom Jones, assembled one Sunday morning by editor Antony Gibbs; the scene from Whatever Happened to Babyjane?, cut by Michael Luciano, in which Bette Davis dances on the beach with an ice-cream cone; or the sequence in Cabaret in which editor David Bretherton took a poorly staged and poorly acted production of a young Nazi boy singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and turned it into one of the most stirring moments in the film.

If you hang around directors, you’ll eventually hear other tales— about editors who were grinding bores, who had peculiar habits, who made the long months of professional intimacy a marital ordeal. About editors who were unimaginative mechanics, who were too comfortable with their old habits and rules of thumb to take risks, who stymied young directors with fresh ideas by telling them, “It can’t be done.” Director Larry Peerce complains of being duped, double-crossed, and bullied during the early years of his career by editors who knew more than he did and took advantage of his ignorance. (He also admits to having threatened the life of one editor because she ate salmon croquettes with cream sauce every day for lunch.)

But there are some questions about film editors that no one knows and no one may ever know. How great was Antony Gibbs’s contribution to the entire body of Tony Richardson’s work? (In addition to Tom Jones, he cut Richardson’s A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The Loved One, Mademoiselle, and The Sailor from Gibraltar.) How instrumental was editor Henri Colpi in the revolutionary film techniques initiated in Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Last Year at Marienbad? What do filmakers Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Eric Rohmer owe to their collaboration with editor Cécile Decugis? How great was the imprint of chief editors Margaret Booth, Daniel Mandell, and Barbara McLean on the golden-era films of MGM, Goldwyn Studios, and 20th Century-Fox? The producers, the directors, and the editors themselves have maintained almost total silence on these questions.

This book is a story of film editing. It is based mainly on the experiences of one editor, Ralph Rosenblum—the “I” of the account—and is written by Robert Karen. It is aimed at a three-quarter-of-a-century gap in our knowledge of how we are entertained, manipulated, and provoked to every conceivable emotion. It is a story of excitement and distress, of manic anxiety and absurd pomposity, and, most important, of the work itself. We hope that after reading it, you will no longer think about movies in quite the same way.

I have been a free-lance film editor—in documentaries, advertising, television, and movies—for over thirty-five years. Since 1975 I’ve lived and worked in a brownstone on West Eighty-fourth Street in Manhattan. On the second floor of the apartment, down the hall from the bedroom, is the cutting room where Annie Hall, Interiors, and several other pictures were edited. It is a large room, lined with two Moviolas, a teak desk, and five tables, all topped with synchronizers, film winders, and other little pieces of equipment. On one table there’s a stereo with a small collection of records that have formed the working scores for numerous films. Metal racks capable of holding several hundred thousand feet of film fill a small alcove behind the desk. The walls are covered with memorabilia, photographs, and Steinberg prints. During periods of dormancy—painful stretches during which my self-esteem plunges and I become nasty and difficult to live with—the tables sprout neat piles of magazines, newly acquired books from the remainder bins at Marboro and Barnes & Noble, and screenplays that friends and associates have sent me to read, comment on, and consider producing.

Since I first joined the business in the 1940s, the cozy little New York City local of the film editors’ union has swelled from a mere 150 members to a mammoth 1500. But despite this burgeoning growth in the field, few outsiders—including actors whose work is so affected by it—have any idea what really goes on during the editing of a film. Friends have repeatedly told me, “I know what you do—you take out the bad parts.” Another, more generous view portrays the editor as the one who “saves” the film, using his bag of cinematic tricks to overcome the blunders of others. Neither impression is accurate. A feature-length film generates anywhere from twenty to forty hours of raw footage. When the shooting stops, that unrefined film becomes the movie’s raw material, just as the script had been the raw material before. It must now be selected, tightened, paced, embellished, arranged, and in some scenes given artificial respiration, until the author’s and the director’s vision becomes completely translated from the language of the script to the idiom of the movies. Under the over-all heading of “editing” are almost all the techniques that distinguish filmmaking from producing a play. The process is as complex and difficult to define as the adjustments, cuts, and shuffling that makes a writer’s final product so different from his first draft. And the effort usually takes two or even three times longer than the shooting itself.

Let me set the scene for you as I have come to know it. I am editing Interiors. Anguished moans and angry cries burst out of the cutting room and fill the entire apartment as pieces of the uncut film are run through the editing machines over and over again. Four people are working in the darkened space. My two assistants, Sandy Morse and Sonya Polonsky, are winding my selections and rejections from the great mass of film onto small, carefully coded spools. These spools of film, each about the diameter of a salad plate and the thickness of a ten-dollar novel, are sitting in piles of twos and threes on surfaces all around the room.

I sit in a corner at one of the Moviolas piecing together a sequence that was shot from five different perspectives. I work quickly, long lengths of film flying through my white-gloved right hand. I stop, mark the film with a grease pencil, fly on, make another mark, cut, splice together the desired portions, and hang up the trims, pieces of deleted film.

Off to my right, at the large rented Steenbeck editing machine— whose TV-sized screen offers a better view of the raw film than does the traditional Moviola—Woody Allen is viewing and reviewing a tiny piece of action from an early scene. “Scene Seventeen, take two,” cries an anonymous voice for the nth time. A prop man races across the twelve-inch screen just before Diane Keaton and Marybeth Hurt appear and begin arguing again. After their short altercation, Woody stops the film. “The second take,” he says at last, and, without looking up, Sandy stops winding film and marks his choice in her fat script book.

Several times in the course of the day, Woody and I confer on the editing of a troublesome scene. Once we go down the hall to the bedroom for a more serious discussion. Woody is worried about the episode in which Sam Waterston breaks down. I assure him the whole sequence can be cut out without leaving too glaring a gap.

Five film barrels crowd the cutting room, with long trims hanging into them from an overhead rod. There’s a lot of film on the floor—not rejected film, as the cliche has it, but film that’s in the process of being viewed or edited or wound. The blast of voices running backward over tape heads repeatedly shatters the air. From my machine a man screams, “So far I have nothing but compassion for you!” Then a Swedish-sounding “!Bhaw-ooo-ai-ya,” as I rewind looking for the right place to make the cut. “Compassion for you!” No one pays attention to the sounds emanating from my corner or to the voice of Sam Waterston on Woody’s machine as he cries that he is able to care for people only en masse, not as individuals (a sentence that will never make it to the theaters). “Clip! Clop!” as I make the cut and apply the tape in two quick gestures. After four months of this, the film is edited and ready to go to the sound studio and the lab for the finishing touches.

Why so long? Why such painstaking devotion? Because as an editor you are constantly faced with choices that subtly influence the character of the film. Reconsider the man who has just bolted upright in bed from the midst of a deep sleep. You are provided with coverage of the next moments from two perspectives. You have a choice. You can cut from the just-awakened protagonist clutching the blankets to his chest to a stranger standing in the shadows at the foot of the bed, pointing a gun and talking in a menacing fashion. Or you can cut from the startled sleeper sitting up in bed to a tight close-up of his face, which reveals the terror in his eyes as the menacing voice of a gunman, unseen by the audience, is heard on the sound track. Your decision will be based on many factors: the degree of tension you want to generate, whether you want the terror to be muted or to reach climax proportions, your concern about repetitive images and moods, your desire to avoid clichés. Once you decide which way to go, you will have to make other choices—first regarding the selection of the strongest performance (or “take”), then the best camera angle, and finally the exact frame (and there are twenty-four frames in a second) where you will cut each shot and make the transition. The cumulative impact of these little decisions may make the difference between a classic and just plain good entertainment—or between good entertainment and a flop. For although audiences are unaware of editing, they are as affected by it as they are by a writer’s style.

No matter how you cut it, really dead material can never be brought to life, but if the raw footage has quality, it faces almost infinite possibilities during the months it passes through an editor’s hands. But because an editor’s prerogatives depend so much on his relationship with the director, it is impossible to say what his contribution is to any given film. A director may demand absolute control of his picture and give the editor little room to offer creative solutions; or he may walk away, leaving no more than a handful of instructions and an occasional word of encouragement. Under the old Hollywood system editors were often considered strictly mechanics and not expected to offer ideas. But during certain periods, like the heyday of the silent film, the era of the great producer-tycoons, and throughout much of TV’s history, certain editors have achieved immense authority and power. In recent years, as the studio system has crumbled and as filmmakers have become more and more inclined to break out of the confines of the script, the editing profession as a whole has begun to come into its own. But even today the situation varies dramatically— from a picture like Apocalypse Now that spends years in the cutting and goes through several generations of editors to a less complicated picture like Slow Dancing in the Big City, which director John Avildsen virtually edited himself.

Because so much goes on in the cutting room, because it is a major center of film creation, an inevitable tension infects the director-editor relationship. Directors never give special mention to their editors when they lope up to receive their Oscar—lest an overeager critic surmise that the film had been in trouble and was saved by heavy editorial doctoring. And editors, understanding the explosive ego issues involved, wisely stay true to the bent for anonymity that led them to their chosen profession.

When it comes to awards for editing, editors are the first to snigger. “We editors know,” says Tom Priestly (This Sporting Life, Marat/Sade, Deliverance), “that we cannot really judge each others’ work without knowing the original material. Many a lousy film has been brilliantly edited, and many a brilliant film has been just competently put together.”

Nonetheless there are certain films that people in the industry know were “made in the cutting room.” This inner-circle recognition offers an editor one of his rare opportunities for ego flight. Among the pictures I’ve worked on, The Night They Raided Minsky’s is certainly the foremost example.

Norman Lear (left) and William Fried kin on the set of THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S.
(Courtesy United Artists Corporation)

1 ■ The Night They Raided Minsky’s
Part I: A Month for Nine Minutes

When Norman Lear, Billy Friedkin, and I gathered to screen the first cut of The Night They Raided Minsky’s on a Friday afternoon in the fall of 1967, we were as far apart as three collaborators could be. I was invigorated and optimistic, having just finished a hard-paced three weeks in the cutting room, paring down some forty-odd hours of raw footage into a manageable two and a half. Friedkin, the director, who would later make The French Connection and The Exorcist, was edgy and preoccupied. He was leaving for England to direct another picture, and although he was already half gone in spirit, he could hardly forget that this film—or whatever became of it—represented the first major opportunity of his career. Lear, the producer and co-author, reverberated with high-pitched anxiety. He had already spent over three million dollars of investor money to finance Minsky’s, making it the most expensive movie ever produced in New York; his director was about to take off for good; and he was beginning to dread that he had gambled too heavily—that this dangerously old-fashioned story would never be perceived as the exciting “New Look” in filmmaking he had promised.

From the very beginning, the idea behind The Night They Raided Minsky’s had been to create an “old-fashioned musical with a New Look.” The producer, the director, and the people at United Artists were excited by the prospect of the New Look, although what it was and how it was going to be accomplished no one knew. If a New Look could really be said to exist at that time, it was flickering about in four recently released movies that were having a big impact on the industry: The Knack, the two Beatles movies, Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum


On Sale
Apr 20, 2009
Page Count
320 pages
Da Capo Press

Ralph Rosenblum

About the Author

Ralph Rosenblum‘s credentials include six Woody Allen films, as well as The Pawnbroker, The Producers, and Goodbye, Columbus.

Robert Karen is a journalist.

Learn more about this author