Cutting Edge: A conversation with film editor Michael Kahn

Trevor Hogg chats with three-time Academy Award-winning film editor Michael Kahn…

Michael KahnWhile in California producing some commercials for a New York ad agency, Michael Kahn was offered a job at Desilu, the production company owned and run by television stars Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. “I was the male secretary for a fellow named Dann Cahn,” comments the three-time Academy Award-winning film editor who assisted the editorial supervisor responsible for the celebrated comedy TV series I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951 to 1957). “Eventually, he said, ‘If you want to get ahead in this town you’ve got to get into the union.’ He got me into the union and then I started assisting a fellow by the name of John Woodcock.” The assignment with Woodcock saw Kahn working on his first television series The Adventures of Jim Bowie (ABC, 1956 to 1958). “It was a wonderful time to be in the editing business because we had fourteen or sixteen shows on the air. Some were comedies and some were dramas.”

“A friend of mine, Jerry London, got a chance to work on Hogan’s Heroes [CBS, 1965 to 1971]; he did the pilot. He said, ‘If you come with me as my assistant, after the fifth or sixth show I’ll make you the editor.’” The editorial supervisor for the World War II comedy series was true to his word, and Michael Kahn spent six years editing over 130 episodes and working with a variety of directors. “I was able to learn a lot from that show; it was a career maker for me.” The military sitcom led to his working with Oscar-winner George C. Scott (Patton) who was making his theatrical directorial debut with the drama Rage (1972). “When he was doing his first show, directing and acting, he said to a friend of his who was a writer, ‘Could you get me that editor. I don’t even know his name, who works on Hogan’s Heroes.’ That’s how it went, believe it or not.” Scott and Kahn would go on to collaborate once more for the adventure tale The Savage Is Loose (1974). “What a wonderful human being he was,” states Kahn fondly. “I really enjoyed working with him.”

Comparing the attitude of movie directors with their counterparts in television, Michael Kahn observes, “In the old days, the directors would shoot a big long master, then they would cut and the editor would just lay it in. But when TV started, the TV directors shot a lot of footage because they realized they had more control of the film when they were through with it.” 1976 turned out to be a big year for the film editor as he won an Emmy Award for his work on the ABC TV movie Eleanor and Franklin and he would have a fortuitous collaboration with filmmaker Irvin Kershner and director of photography Owen Roizman on The Return of a Man Called Horse. Both Kershner and Roizman recommended Kahn to a young director looking for a film editor to help him with a science fiction picture. When asked by Steven Spielberg as to whether he was a good editor, the New Yorker said he had no idea but those with whom he worked kept asking him to come back. Kahn got the job and headed off to Mobile, Alabama where he assembled Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

Close Encounters of the Third Kind led to Michael Kahn receiving his first of seven record-setting Oscar nominations for Best Editing, six of them resulting from his work with Steven Spielberg. “I just remember I had a lot of fun,” recalls Kahn of the swashbuckling adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) which awarded him with his first Oscar. Questioned about the opening twenty-minute action sequence, the film editor explains, “In the old days when the trains went across the country they just had that track. They had this long cowcatcher in the front that would push any sheep or cows off the rails. So when a motion picture starts you want to start it with a cowcatcher, something that the audience can grab onto.”

Michael Kahn“When I’m through with a film I try to forget everything about it so when I go to the next film I’m not carrying any excess [mental] baggage with me,” reveals Michael Kahn who was lauded with two separate 1988 Oscar nominations for Empire of the Sun and Fatal Attraction; before the latter thriller could be released its concluding scene had to be altered by co-editors Peter Berger and Kahn because of the negative reactions occurring during the test screenings. “It really was an incredible ending but the people were promised by the wife when she said, ‘If you touch my husband again, I’ll kill you.’” Thinking further about the film in which Glenn Close (The Big Chill) plays a psychotic lover spurned by the character portrayed by Michael Douglas (Wall Street), the film editor adds, “They have an argument at one point and I recall she says, ‘I will not be ignored.’ It is a great line in the film. She just wanted to be with him. The audience probably didn’t feel all that much for her because she was taking a wife’s man.”

“We were finishing Jurassic Park [1993] as we were starting to shoot Schindler,” recalls Michael Kahn who had to edit two Steven Spielberg films at the same time. “I took a [work] print of Jurassic Park. Whenever the Lucas people wanted to send us something they sent it over the saucer [satellite dish] and we would see it in Poland.” Kahn states that the 1993 World War II holocaust tale, which led to him being presented with his second Oscar, was the most difficult picture on which he has ever worked. “Schindler’s List was very hard because we were in Poland and we went to the [concentration] camps. The horrific subject matter left the film editor feeling emotionally drained. “When I came home I felt really overtaken with the travail of these people.”

Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan (1998) features a dramatic opening sequence; unlike its predecessor, an actual historical event is recreated – the Allied troops landing on the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day invasion. “The first twenty or thirty minutes of Private Ryan had so many different camera techniques being utilized; I had a lot of ways I could go with it,” says Michael Kahn of the dramatic introduction which has been praised for its brutally realistic depiction of battlefield combat. For his efforts on the World War II picture, Kahn was rewarded with his third Oscar.

“You don’t edit from knowledge. You edit from intuition,” says Michael Kahn who views himself as a creative collaborator. “Some directors don’t like you to edit until they are ready to run it with you; then what you have to say is minimal because he tells you what he wants and you sit there and type out the visuals. But that’s not editing… I want to make a contribution to the film.” Kahn acknowledges that the man behind the camera is the one who reigns supreme when it comes to the final decision-making. “You have to get the director’s ideas. We don’t work in a vacuum.” The film editor adds, “I think if the director can have a good point of view and you can be in synch with him it can be wonderful. The only problems I have had in this business, to tell you the truth, are when you go in to try to fix a film… Those directors are really very unhappy with you having to come in to play with their picture.” When I ask him to whom he answers when there is a creative dispute, the post-production specialist replies, “It is up to the producer and the director to mitigate. Some of these fellows want to leave it four hours long. You can’t make an impression on them. They have a set view and they feel that’s the way to go. And that’s the way they should go if they feel that way, but not only is it an art medium it is also a commercial medium.”

Michael Kahn Steven SpielbergThe collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Michael Kahn continues to thrive; they will be releasing two pictures in 2011, the motion-capture animated tale The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and the cinematic adaptation of the World War I drama War Horse. In regards to editing the first installment of the proposed trilogy based on the comic book series created by Hergé, the task was made easier as Kahn received dailies featuring the animated characters and settings. There was one thing that the footage lacked. “It had to go down to Weta in New Zealand and they would put in the mouth and eye movements; with some of the more difficult animation pieces, they would complete it.” Moving onto the War Horse was not a problem for Michael Kahn. “We went to England. He shot the film. We put together here in Hollywood. It worked well.” Though he has not read the book, Kahn did attend the stage play in England. “People responded very well in the theatre. It was nice to see and of course the horses are not real but after awhile you think they’re real.” In explaining the story set during World War I, the New Yorker remarks, “The horse really doesn’t decide where he’s going; it’s just how life takes him. It’s a lot of fun to see. Those English actors are awfully good and so were the horses. The horses were beautifully trained. For an editor there were a lot of match [frame] problems with the horses but the shooting was so good that I got everything I needed.”

In between the two films he worked on with Steven Spielberg, Michael Kahn served as the third editor on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides which is also scheduled to be released in 2011. “I had just finished with Jerry Bruckheimer trying to fix Prince of Persia. They liked what I did and they wanted to keep me around for the start of the Pirates of the Caribbean. So I spent a month or two just helping out the two other editors. They kept me there until Steven started. I never even saw the director. He was in Hawaii and I was here in the States.” Explaining his contribution to the fourth installment of the high seas adventure franchise being helmed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), Kahn states, “We would give him a first run through of a sequence; he had someone there who would make changes in Hawaii. Then it came back to us; we showed it to Jerry Bruckheimer who accepted or didn’t accept the changes.”

As for future projects with Steven Spielberg such as the biopic about Abraham Lincoln, Michael Kahn says, “It is my understanding they are going to start the film, just like they say in trades, at the end of this year which is September or October… If it goes I will work on it with Steven.” In regards to his also working on Robopocalypse, the cinematic adaptation of the science fiction story penned by novelist Daniel H. Wilson, the film editor remarks, “I was told in the trades that he was going to do that right after Lincoln which would also be an overlap.” The possibility of his having to assemble two films at the same time does not unnerve Kahn. “I think our minds have a capacity to do more than one thing at a time.”

Michael KahnWhen it comes to impressive movies he has recently seen, Michael Kahn mentions Blue Valentine which stars Michelle Williams (The Station Agent) and Ryan Gosling (Fracture) playing a couple whose marriage falls apart. “It’s no fun seeing that picture but you want to see it; the acting is great.” Another one that stands out to the film editor is the psychological thriller Black Swan with Natalie Portman (Beautiful Girls) portraying a professional ballerina. “You see the unraveling of this woman. This is not what I would call entertainment but it is something people can relate to because it hits a nerve of truth. It was the same thing with Schindler; people want more reality, especially, the older people.” What has yet to impress Kahn is the current 3D technology. “The picture is much duller. It can’t capture enough light. I was watching Avatar and I took my glasses off a number of times and I was able to see the colours so much better. That’s a problem they have to solve.”

“You should see as many pictures as you can,” advises Michael Kahn to aspiring film editors. “If you like them, you ask, ‘Why did this picture work so well? What elements in it made it work so well?’ If it’s a bad picture, you ask, ‘Why didn’t it work? What would I have done as an editor to make it work?’ But that’s after you’ve seen the picture.” Having completely converted to computer editing, Kahn observes, “The editing hasn’t changed because we’re doing it digitally. Editing is editing. The decision of what to do takes the same amount of time, except, we get there quickly.” Contemplating his career, the film editor says, “What have been very important for me over the years have been my assistants… They have been wonderful because you don’t have time to answer the phones. You don’t have time to do the mechanics of the editing room. And if you have an assistant who can take care of all of that then your only responsibility is to sit and edit.”

Many thanks to Michael Kahn for taking the time out of his busy schedule for this interview.

For more, be sure to check out Trevor’s article “Editor Michael Kahn reflects on his work with Spielberg” from Post Magazine.

American Cinema Editors Lifetime Achievement Award Tribute to Michael Kahn…


Filmmaker Edgar Wright has posted his thoughts on the tribute video, which you can read here.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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  • K Kasper

    He is one of the best in his craft. I really like his nod to his assistants. Patrick Crane is in my opinion the most skilled 1st assist to ever run a cutting room.