08 June 2012
Posted in Film
Screenwriter Lindsay Shapero talks to Oscar-winning film editor Jim Clark about his remarkable career and the insights he has for writers
You can listen to Lindsay's interview with Jim Clark in our podcast
‘If you’re handed a boring load of old tosh, it’s rather difficult to weave it into a masterpiece, but often a fine film can be carved out of confusing footage.’
On meeting film editor Jim Clark, you can see why he’s always been in such demand – he displays brutal honesty and total dedication, wrapped up in old school charm. He’s very entertaining company and it’s what makes his memoirs such a rewarding read – he doesn’t spare the blushes of the super egos.
A film editor is the ultimate back-room presence. The one with the golden eyes. The one who knows everybody’s secrets, the actors’ and director’s brilliance and flaws. Expected to be magicians and alchemists, film editors lead us into a story through a sleight of hand, turning base metal into gold.
It’s a career for lone wolves, the work commencing once the cast and crew are finished. Jim’s long-time collaboration with the notoriously mercurial but brilliant film director John Schlesinger was one of the lynchpins of his career. ‘John trusted me when he didn’t trust anybody,’ Jim says. ‘Very generously, he said I’d saved his arse a lot of times.’
They made seven films together, including classics such as Midnight Cowboy (screenplay by Waldo Salt) and Marathon Man (screenplay by William Goldman). Jim was the only one Schlesinger felt he could leave with his rushes – rightly so, as Darling, their first film together, won Oscars for its writer Frederic Raphael and star Julie Christie. It helped put both director and editor on the map.
‘Marathon Man was the only one that went through without any trouble. It had a good script and very good casting, with Olivier and Dustin Hoffman. When John [Schlesinger] was on form, he was very good.’ Marathon Man is about the resurfacing of a Nazi war criminal and regularly features on lists of the Top 10 films of all time. It’s infamous for the scene where Olivier’s Nazi dentist tortures Hoffman with some very unnecessary fillings.
‘I’d persuaded John to let me have a unit and shoot close-ups of burning teeth,’ Jim explains. ‘John didn’t want to see anything graphic and I said I thought we could be even more graphic – a little smoke coming out of the drill.’ In this instance, Schlesinger was right, and during screenings, audiences fled the violence. Jim realised that the power of the scene was in the audience’s imagination, and in the whining of the dentist’s drill.
Jim explains that Goldman didn’t write the film’s last scene – it was created by a ‘committee’ of Olivier, Hoffman, Schlesinger and Jim. ‘The same thing happened for the last scene of The Day of the Locust. The writer, Waldo Salt, who smoked a great deal of pot, failed to come up with it.’ Jim’s career started with him joining the class-ridden Ealing Studios in the 1950s, where ’you knew your place and stayed in it’. He worked his way up from a being a joining boy – rewinding reels of film and making joins – to a second assistant editor on The Prince and the Showgirl. It wasn’t long before Jim arrived in Hollywood editing Charade, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and it was on this film that he met his wife, the French film editor Laurence Méry.
Jim admits that he ran his edit suites like a tyrant and edited his films using his steel trap of a mind combined with 100% commitment. Like a bloodhound on the scent of greatness, he wouldn’t give up on a project until he’d given it his best. Even if it was undeserving. Jim considers film editing an art, not a craft, but it has its limits. Even with all his tricks of the trade, a bad script usually heralds a turkey.
‘Script construction is of paramount importance,’ Jim says. ‘I could see scripts which were loosely written and the director presumably said OK, that’s a shooting script. But Billy Wilder used to spend a year constructing a film with an engineering process.’
Many times Jim has been involved in films that are being made not because of love and passion, but because of serendipity – some bit of casting is available, or the producer thinks he or she will make a killing. Jim was once asked to ‘save’ a script after it had tanked in its read-through and before a frame had even been shot. ‘Usually they wait until at least the rough cut. I was prepared to agree it wasn’t a best starting position. I couldn’t save it.’
Often a script is in trouble for unexpected reasons, like Agatha (1979), starring Dustin Hoffman and Vanessa Redgrave. ‘Agatha went through the mill but, then, it wasn’t going to be anything but trouble. That was nothing to do with the original script by Kathy Tynan, but Dustin didn’t get on with Vanessa. They each had writers working on the script and the scenes they had to play together and they had different dialogue.’
With Hollywood super egos, stars having competing screenwriters on the same film is not uncommon. Neither is them bringing in their own editors and sacking the original. ‘The first person to leave a film now is the editor, because they think a new pair of eyes will solve the problem. But, in fact, if you start with a good script, you’re halfway to success.’ Jim spent time in Hollywood as a production executive at Columbia under the tenure of David Puttnam. He shocked people by cutting through the Hollywood bullshit and speaking the truth in meetings. Year later, when Sean Penn asked him what he thought of his film Into The Wild and Jim said: ‘It’s too long,’ Penn stomped off.
At Columbia, Jim never worked directly with writers himself but had to read six scripts a weekend – after a year, only one got made – Things Change by David Mamet. It was a failure.
But it was with Puttnam that Jim had his biggest success – an Oscar for editing The Killing Fields. ‘Bruce Robinson had written The Killing Fields script which was very good, very fascinating. It was as if Bruce had written it on mescalin, quite different from the finished film in as much as Roland took the headlines and ran with them. Roland would sort of embroider them.’
His next Puttnam/Joffe production was more of a slog. The Mission was written by Robert Bolt and starred Robert De Niro. In the edit suite, Jim had two major challenges – how to transform the main character in one key scene and how to deal with De Niro’s acting technique.
‘The whole film hinged on getting De Niro to be a very bad man, from being a good man, in no time at all. It was impossible. De Niro was never rightly cast, but he was box-office gold at the time. The music [by Ennio Morricone] helped it enormously and will probably outlive the film.’
Joffe’s method was to run 1,000 feet of film through the camera and let De Niro run with it. But each time De Niro restarted the scene, he changed the reading, trying it in a variety of accents, such as Bronx. Hell to edit, but Jim won a BAFTA for his troubles.
Working with Mike Leigh on Vera Drake was a very different experience. ‘That was an easy film to cut because Mike knew what he wanted. I think we took about 10 days.’ It’s this clarity of thought and purpose that is so important for a script to succeed. So which part of a script is the most important – the beginning, middle or end?
‘The middle part of the film is always the problem. Because by that time people know the characters and they’re only waiting for the film to end. I think films are too long generally and also think they’re over scored. That applies to TV as well.’
Jim has edited every genre of film, from pure art house such as the Fiennes family project Onegin, ludicrous comedies such as Marty Feldman’s Beau Geste, to a James Bond, The World is not Enough. ‘That was a piece of cake,’ Jim says. ‘Great fun, I enjoyed it a lot.’ He edited it in the same room where he’d started as an assistant on The Prince and the Showgirl. Except this time there was no Moviola or joiner, but four interlocked (digital editing) Avid machines, linked up to a giant plasma screen. If you look at Jim’s work through the years, there’s a classic every decade; he’s like a cinematic Zelig. In conversation it’s clear he has a soft spot for Schlesinger’s Honky Tonk Freeway and The Day Of The Locust, both of which he considers forgotten classics. But can he choose one overall favourite movie of his career?
’Each film is a life. It depends on the project and the producer and director’s relationship. I often say I’ll do everything a director wants except sleep with him. People said: “You never slept with Schlesinger even though you did seven films together?” No, that wasn’t the way we worked.’
Dream Repairman, Adventures in Film Editing by Jim Clark with John H Myers and with an introduction by William Boyd is published by Landmarc.