Cutting Edge: A conversation with film editor Richard Chew

Trevor Hogg chats with Academy Award-winner Richard Chew about his career and the craft of film editing…

“I went to law school like many students lost after college,” recalls American film editor Richard Chew who attended Harvard Law School. “It didn’t ignite me intellectually.” Inspiration was found elsewhere. “I saw this film that made a monumental impact on me called Nothing But a Man [1964], an independent film made by a couple of young mavericks. It’s a love story about a young African American couple in the South set in the social context of the time. When I saw it I realized film could be a social document, like a novel; it could tell you something about the society you live in and that’s what appealed to me.” Chew wanted to learn more about the artistic process so he became a documentary cameraman. “You would film everything that was going on and later in the editing room you’d start shaping it; that’s what drew me to work in the editing room because I liked the manipulation of images.” The Academy Award-winner confesses, “Fortunately for me, the first feature film I worked on was The Conversation [1974]. [Francis Ford] Coppola wanted Walter [Murch] and me to experiment with narrative structure and not necessarily follow the script; that was like news to me because in documentaries I was trying so hard to make the footage appear linear and continuous. Thank goodness I didn’t begin with a straightforward film like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [1975] which was linear. The Conversation took a lot of liberties; I appreciate what that opportunity allowed me to learn.”

“All the directors I’ve worked with early in my career were challenging and complex,” states Richard Chew who also edited for Milos Forman (Amadeus) and George Lucas (American Graffiti). “It was tough for me to work with more conventional directors after that because I would unconsciously compare them with Forman, Coppola, or Lucas.” The native of Los Angeles enjoys collaborating with writer-directors. “The thing I am most drawn to is the writer-director’s vision and whether I can help achieve it.” Chew gives an example. “One picture I worked on with Cameron Crowe [Almost Famous] was Singles [1992]; he certainly has a unique vision and sharply drawn characters. I call him the West Coast Woody Allen 20 years removed.” Crowe has the ability to place his characters in situations that “always help to edify an audience on how they can approach life.” Paul Brickman, who wrote and helmed Risky Business (1983) and Men Don’t Leave (1992), also stands out. “I love his lack of clichés in how he tells his stories and draws his characters. For instance, in Risky Business he originated a whole world of teenagers that no one had done at that time.”

“An editor’s role varies according to what the assignment is or who the director is or who that filmmaking team is,” observes Richard Chew. “Directors for hire might not have a vision other than ‘let’s get this script done.’” Writer-directors tend to have a different purpose as was the case when Chew was assembling The New World (2005). “There are directors who aren’t necessarily interested in coming back to the script page — like Terry Malick; he explores to the dictates of his consciousness. Terry is open to constant change, and drawn to randomness; his mantra is ‘you only step into the same river once’ because it continues to flow and change. That was the kind of direction I received from him in the editing room — which makes it hard to work with, since it’s so subjective.”

Several memorable creative issues have had to be addressed over the years. One was in Risky Business, which was cut using a horizontal film editing machine and required the making of film effects optically by photochemical methods. “A particular editing challenge was how to create sensuality in the climatic scene between Tom Cruise [Minority Report] and Rebecca De Mornay [The Hand That Rocks the Cradle] on the train. In the editing room we ended up naming it, Love on a Train; that sequence evolved from a conventionally shot scene into one where I started to experiment with printing different frame rates and how to transition into it. We tried to tie it together with the rest of the movie, which entailed me going back to edit a background for the main titles; that was an interesting thing to do as an editor – to lay the groundwork for a later event in a film by creating something at the top of the film which wasn’t in its original design.”

“Another tricky challenge for me as an editor was in the film Bobby [2006] directed by Emilio Estevez [The Breakfast Club],” reveals Richard Chew. “What drew me to the project was his wanting to use the documentary footage of the assassination of Robert Kennedy. When I read the script I thought this is the perfect vehicle for me to go back in time to my documentary days because I realized I would have to integrate documentary footage from different sources with the staged footage that Emilio would create on a set. It turned out to be an even greater challenge because theoretically you think, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m just going to use old footage and then I’ll intercut it with this new stuff, but unexpected obstacles pop up. You didn’t know you had to deal with varied formats and availability of footage.” A particular technological advancement proved to be an indispensable tool – the digital intermediate copy of the original film negative created in the lab. “You’re trying to upgrade as much as you can from the old footage and downgrade as much as you can with the new footage. Fortunately, by the time we made Bobby, we had digital intermediates you could use to digitally degrade stuff to match the old footage, and hopefully you’ve done a better job in levelling out the differences between the two.”

“In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was done a year after The Conversation, the sound effects were used to fill in the background or merely underline what you see,” explains Richard Chew who received his first Oscar nomination for the psychiatric hospital drama starring Jack Nicholson (Chinatown) and Danny DeVito (Romancing the Stone). “Whereas a picture like The Conversation used sound in a psychological way that many people try to emulate today. The Conversation was groundbreaking not only for the picture structure but also for how the sound was used. I would say it influenced many people to start calling themselves sound designers rather than sound effects editors.” Sound plays a key role in producing a seamless transition. “It was in the ‘60s when sound started being used as a pre-lap to take you into the next scene. The Graduate [1967] is a good example of how dialogue or an effect is pre-lapped into an outgoing scene and taken into an incoming scene.”

Other audio transition devices involve using similar sounds and dialogue continuation. “I’m trying to remember in the film Traffic [2000] which Steven Soderbergh [Ocean’s Eleven] directed and Steven Mirrione [Babel] edited,” states Chew. “There are some clever dialogue transitions where the dialogue from one scene bridged over angles of Michael [Douglas] not speaking but in a different scene; eventually that dialogue caught up with what he was doing in the present.” Visual transitions can effectively advance story in very little screen time. “Recently in the film Moneyball [2011], I thought there were some really brilliant scene transitions that involved the use of flashbacks of Billy Beane’s character that were nonlinear; it wasn’t like a flashback which is simply looping. They were efficient and effective montages, which I’m guessing were discovered in editing room.”

Inserting a music temp track is a device of last resort for Richard Chew unless the project is a musical. “If it’s a dramatic performance scene I think using music too early is a cheat because as an editor you want to bring out the best performance and see that it’s working on an audience for whatever the emotion or the feeling is that you’re trying to elicit. Adding music prematurely gives it false support.” He continues, “I only add music before a preview to help a general audience but in the editing room I generally don’t. You don’t want to get too used to something that you’re hearing too often. Even in Star Wars [1977] we weren’t using music early on at all; only later for a screening for the studio would we add a temp track. In most cases you try to work with what you have and then you add the music later. Following a different aesthetic in Risky Business, much of the music was used as part of the narrative.” Chew explains, “Both Cameron [Crowe] and Paul Brickman wrote into their scripts the songs they wanted to use. By the time we put their films together we didn’t by and large deviate from that. I would say 90 percent of what ended up in their films was what was indicated in the screenplay. Most other directors don’t have such a specific taste in music, so working with them makes it a scramble.”

“Action is linear because there’s a cause and effect relationship,” believes Richard Chew. “You’re keeping the eye actively engaged. It’s very kinetic.” The choice of editing technique depends on the required cinematic value. “In a performance oriented dramatic scene you have to figure out, one, what’s the story point and the character arcs, where are you leading this, how much do you want to reveal because you can withhold stuff whereas in action you don’t. Take a simple example of a car chase you have to at least imply where it’s going to end up. I find with dialogue scenes a lot of the times you can take out the end or the beginning then start in the middle. You can’t do that with an action scene. Also, in dramatic dialogue, how your use of reactions is as important as what the dialogue is. The one thing that differentiates really good editing of dialogue scenes is how much we play or don’t play on the speaker. It’s important for us to see the impact of what is being said off screen on a character or characters to give weight to what is being said.”

When informed writer-director Shane Black (Iron Man 3) praised the action sequences in Star Wars for forwarding the plot, Richard Chew replies, “That’s a good analysis and reportage to be able to give that judgement to it. When you’re in the trenches you’re trying to do the best with what you have and hopefully it works for an audience. God knows there are so many other films that try to use that same idea but it doesn’t grab the audience the same way because of the lack of sympathy for the characters or what’s at stake in the story leaves them not caring or they might not be ready for it.” Questioned as to why transitional wipes were utilized, Chew answers, “George Lucas wanted to refer back to the Buck Rogers serials from the 1930s; a popular transition device back then was the soft edged wipe. I remember being in the editing room and we were editing on horizontal editing machines. Watching the spaceship doors moving horizontally suggested using wipes coinciding in movement – in my memory that’s what gave the original impetus to it — to use the momentum of the closing and opening of doors as a way of moving between scenes. Only later did we start to use vertical wipes as well.”

“I was lucky that early in my editing career, so many people opened up my eyes,” reflects Richard Chew. “Walter Murch showed me how to experiment with structure. Milos Forman showed me how to use reactions of characters. George and Marcia Lucas showed me how to use pacing in action sequences. I remember a particular moment when Marcia turned on the light for me.” Chew won an Oscar along with Paul Hirsch (Mission: Impossible) and Marcia Lucas (Taxi Driver) for their team work on a landmark space opera. “Marcia’s a no-nonsense, tough cookie, and I felt she had really good visceral sense without having gone to film school to pick up anything theoretical. It was all intuition for her; Marcia was very concise in her approach to stuff. When I was working on the opening sequences of Star Wars, the way that most scripts are written it’s not crosscut. You follow one scene, one action and then maybe later on you go to another scene. When Marcia first looked at it, she gave the most insightful comment to me. ‘You’ve got to intercut these robots more quickly with soldiers and with the princess. Keep it short.’”

Marcia Lucas, who had also received an earlier Oscar nomination for American Graffiti (1973), vanished from the movie industry after divorcing her filmmaker husband George Lucas. “I haven’t spoken to her in years so I don’t know what her mindset is now,” remarks Chew. “I can understand if she decided to checkout from the biz because working in movies beyond a few years is a tough life and career choice. You have to have a thick skin, a lot of confidence, and you have to be able to let a lot of stuff roll off your back. Maybe she got tired of it. Who knows?” Lucas was not alone in providing useful insight into the craft. “Hank Corwin is another editor who showed me a different approach to editing. We worked together on Terrence Malick’s The New World. Hank selects parts of shots and joins them in ways which are completely unpredictable for me. I look at his stuff and think, ‘I never would have thought of doing that.’ If my style is making a straight cut, his is making a zigzag diagonal; Hank’s cutting style encourages me to look at footage through a crooked kaleidoscope.”

“A director is an insecure artist to begin with no matter how successful he or she is,” says Richard Chew. “As an editor you’re there to boost the confidence and enable the director to achieve his or her vision; that vision may be overridden later, but nevertheless I’m there to help give it their best shot.” Not surprisingly the move into digital filmmaking has made the task more complicated. “It used to be when we shot on film, and because it’s expensive, the director had to make choices on the set as to what to print. You might shoot 15 takes but you would only print three of them. If you really needed to, you could go back later off the set and pull out another take or two that were unprinted originally. But these days because everything is put onto a hard drive you might have all 15 takes to work with, which give more choices but ultimately slows down the process.”

The attitude that you can fix mistakes in post-production still exists. “Unfortunately, it has probably increased more with the use of computer technology because not only can you fix it in post but you can consider all the options,” notes Richard Chew. “I’ve worked on productions where a producer would install an Avid system at home and play around with the footage. For the editor the post-production process gets to be a lot more creatively taxing and politically complex.” In regards to the usefulness of test screenings, Chew believes, “It depends on who is in control of the picture. Most directors don’t even like them because they don’t like how an audience ratings score can give you a false sense of confidence or destroy it. Some of the directors I’ve worked with like to have screenings without cards; they would sit there in the middle of a theater with acquaintances and friends or a random audience. If test screenings are used to help figure out the playability of the picture and how to improve it, then I support them. I’ve worked on films where a director is forced into a different cut because the numbers are bad, or if the suits know the numbers are going to be bad that’s a way for them to force the director to bend to their will.”

Making the transition to computer editing required some adjustment. “On Waiting to Exhale [1995], I hired an Avid instructor as an assistant and then I learned the program from him very quickly,” states Richard Chew. “Not only how to operate the buttons and the logic of the program, but how to setup the desktop to organize the material, and how I could adapt my film style of organization to the Avid. It took me the course of that picture to learn how to use it efficiently and be comfortable with it.” The desire to experiment helped the learning process. “I would be willing to make technical errors and not be frustrated by it. I more easily tried several ideas. It wasn’t like I had to commit to something and then it would take me five minutes to redo it. I could put together assemblies much more quickly, although my thinking time didn’t accelerate. My thinking time in terms of judging what I was doing was still the same. On the plus side, digital editing has allowed me to do more versions.” Foregoing the computer to revisit the old days of editing is not entirely out of the question. “I never used a Moviola. I used the flatbeds, the KEMs, Steenbecks. Given the right kind of film I probably would cut on film. I wouldn’t mind handling the film and scraping the magnetic emulsion to smooth the sound. But the one thing I wouldn’t like doing again is redoing splices, being tied down to the mechanical aspects of tape and glue.”

Listed among Chew’s favourite movies for editing are Citizen Kane (1941), The Godfather Part I & 2 (1972, 1974), Woodstock (1970), Raging Bull (1980), The Black Stallion (1979), City of God (2002), Children of Men (2006), and JFK (1991). “They are striking examples of compelling, visual storytelling as opposed to some films, which are more dialogue driven narratives.” Of recent films, the Californian was impressed by a comedy described as the female version of The Hangover (2009). “I liked it in terms of its boldness, not necessarily because of its editing, but I loved Bridesmaids [2011]. Whether you think it’s successful or not, I liked the boldness of its being told from a women’s point of view, of seeing the desperate nature of the characters, and how it was willing to go way out there with unconventional characters. You felt like they were laughing too. It wasn’t like we were laughing at them but with them.” Reflecting on his ability to work in the movie industry for over 40 years, Chew remarks, “I try to understand what the storytelling styles are because they have changed over the course of my career. The one constant thing you have to retain as an editor is a sense of character development, how to develop the narrative, how to develop the storyline by the use of conflict, and how to use different pacing to be able to tell the story effectively.”
“It will be a fad because you have to have the right kind of story to use that with,” states Richard Chew who remains sceptical about the trend towards making 3D movies. “James Cameron is such a visionary that he created a film, Avatar [2009], that worked because it had these different worlds and planes. With Alice in Wonderland [2010] 3D can work in a more limited basis because of the distortion of the world as Alice goes into the rabbit’s hole. I can’t say that every other film really works better with 3D. I saw Wim Wenders’ picture Pina [2011] which works wonderfully without the 3D aspect of it.” Another technological development fascinates Chew. “It’s pretty crazy we’re going in one hand to IMAX and on the other hand to iPhones to watch movies. For me, we need the full-impact stimulation of the big screen, because there’s a certain aspect to watching films in a public arena with an audience of strangers. It’s a different from the private one with the iPhone, which makes it so limiting in terms of your experience. I’m a big screen advocate. I don’t even like to watch movies on airplanes because to me it’s stupid, like watching a movie through the wrong end of a telescope.”

“The biggest change that I’ve observed in my career is to see how people from music videos and commercials have come in to work in the feature realm,” observes Richard Chew. He believes that their creative infusion has changed certain aesthetics, like the duration and style of cuts. What does he see in the near future? “We will see a trend where movies will throw a lot more information on the screen than one image. Darren Aronofsky [Black Swan] did that with Requiem for a Dream [2000]. Mike Figgis told his story in Timecode [2000] with simultaneous multiple images.” Last year Chew spoke to a group of film school students at the Detroit Institute of Arts. “I talked about how Hollywood creatively is dead. Where Hollywood is viable is in being a source of financing for independent films — because for me the future still is in independent films, whether it’s like Winter’s Bone [2010] or Drive [2011]; pictures that seem small but have interesting characters and explore different regional or local stories that are not usually told. Maybe they’re not seen as entertainment but that’s where I think the craft of filmmaking will grow.” Chew confesses, “When I was a student I thought, ‘God. I can’t wait to get out of school then I could do this for real and I don’t have to work as hard. I won’t have exams. I don’t have to do things for grades.’ Then you find out in the real world that your grades are people hiring you.”

Opening photo courtesy of Liv Torgerson.

Many thanks to Richard Chew for taking the time for this interview and for more of his insights read Award Worthy.

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

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  • Seán

    Very interesting! I'm waiting for the next installment. "Couldn't put it down" when it ended.