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The Cut Man: Oscar-winning film editor Mike Hill


The number of Nebraskans working in or on the fringes of the film industry is in the hundreds.  I know there’s nothing remarkable about that in and of itself, other than that this is a small population state far removed from either coast. Then again, the vast majority of Hollywood film professionals originated somewhere else besides Calif., including lots of places just like Nebraska. But what is unusual is the high number of folks from here who have made significant contributions to the film industry either by the imprint or quality or volume of their work .

Try this cursory list on for size:

Darryl Zanuck, Harold Lloyd, Hoot Gibson, Fred Astaire, Robert Taylor, Ward Bond, Ann Ronell, Henry Fonda, Dorothy McGuire,  Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Lynn Stalmaster, Donald Thorin, James Coburn, David Janssen, Inga Swenson, Sandy Dennis, David Doyle, Lew Hunter, Irene Worth, Joan Micklin Silver, Nick Nolte, Swoosy Kurtz, Paul Williams, Marg Helgenberger, Lori Petty, Sandy Veneziano, Alexander Payne, John Jackson, Jon Bokenkamp, Jaime King, Dan Mirvish, Dana Altman, John Beasley, Kevin Kennedy, Patrick Coyle, Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, Nicholas D’Agosto, Chris Klein, Nik Fackler, Tom Elkins.

Add in Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett for good measure.

The list includes mega-moguls, directors, producers, screenwriters, songwriters, actors, actresses, you name it, and their influence extends from the silent era through the Golden Age of Hollywood to the indie movement and right on up to today.  There are Oscar winners both behind and in front of the camera, industry stalwarts and mavericks, household names and lesser known but no less significant figures.

And then there’s the subject of this story, Mike Hill, an Oscar-winning editor who’s been attached to Ron Howard for decades and shared in the director’s many successes.  Hill is an Omaha native and resident known for his generosity with young, aspiring filmmakers and editors.  I did the following profile on him in 2002 and what most interested me about him then and still does now is the story of how he came to work in Hollywood in the first place and the classic journey he took as an apprentice learning his craft.  During that process he worked with some genuine legends and those experiences obviously added his professional development.

 

The Cut Man: Oscar-winning film editor Mike Hill             

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Success for Mike Hill, Academy Award-winning film editor from Omaha, did not come overnight. His local-boy-made-good-in-Hollywood story ranges from lean years learning the craft to being mentored by old pros to turning lucky breaks to his advantage to reaching the pinnacle of his profession.

He and fellow editor Dan Hanley, who together cut all of Ron Howard’s films, shared the 1995 Oscar for Best Film Editing on Apollo 13 and are nominated again this year for the critically-praised A Beautiful Mind, which is up for a total of eight Oscars, including Best Picture. During an interview at the Pacific Street Spirit World, Hill, who lives in Omaha with his wife and their daughter, discussed his career and collaboration in cinema.

After graduating from Omaha Burke in the late 1960s Hill attended UNO, where he studied a little of everything before earning a criminal justice degree. To pay his way through school he worked nights as an assistant film editor at Channel 6 television, splicing 16 millimeter commercials together, a seemingly forgettable job that, however, would soon be his entree into movies.

He headed out to California in the early 1970s with the idea of working in penology. But after a few months as a Chino State Prison guard he realized he was in the wrong field and promptly quit. He took odd jobs to pay the rent and almost on a whim applied for work with the film editors guild.

“I wasn’t really counting on anything,” he said. “Then luckily one day I was home when a phone call came from the guild saying Paramount was hiring. I ended up getting hired as an apprentice, which consisted of working in film shipping and driving a golf cart delivering film to editing rooms and screening rooms and doing whatever they told you to do.”

Elia Kazan with Jeanne Moreau and Robert De Niro on the set of The Last Tycoon

 

 

As unglamorous as his work was, Hill landed in the movies at a propitious time and a prestigious place. It was 1973 and Paramount ruled Hollywood after scoring big the previous year with The Godfather. The studio was producing a whole new slate of soon-to-be classics.

“It was an amazing time,” he said. “The movie business was very busy. Paramount was making Godfather II and Chinatown at the time I was there. I would just marvel every day at who I saw on the lot — Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro. So, it was pretty heady stuff for a kid from Omaha.”

Once Hill understood the way out of the shipping room meant learning how to be an assistant film editor, he announced his ambition to do just that.

“I was fortunate to have a couple assistant editors I met who were willing to teach me how to synch-up dailies. When film comes from the previous day’s shoot you synch it up with picture and track (soundtrack) so it can run in a screening room. I learned how to do that and I slowly learned editing room tasks.” His first screening room duties were for then hit TV shows like The Brady Bunch. Learning the ropes the same time as Hill was Dan Hanley, with whom he would later team.

Among the old-line editors Hill and Hanley apprenticed under was Bob Kern. “Both Dan and I learned quite a bit from him. He would give us scenes to edit — to work on — and that’s the best way to learn. He and other editors encouraged us to pursue it and to move up.”

The ‘70s saw Hill work on many made-for-TV movie and film projects. Two master filmmakers he assisted around 1976 spurred his development: on The Last Tycoon he worked with Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront)  whose elegant if rather lifeless feature adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished last novel ended up being the director’s final film; and on Bound for Glory he worked with Hal Ashby (Coming Home), whose exquisite vision of folk singer Woody Guthrie’s life story secured critical plaudits but saw scant box office returns.

Hill said he went to the Tycoon set every day observing Kazan at work and ran dailies for him the entire shoot. Kazan may have noted his young charge’s intense interest in the process as, Hill said, “He took me under his wing and let me cut some scenes. One scene he was going to reshoot anyway, so he said. ‘Go ahead and cut this together and see what you can do with it.’ I was there all night messing around with it. It was a simple scene of two people talking. On every line I cut back and forth until it was like a ping pong match. I really didn’t know what I was doing. He looked at it with me in the screening room and told me, ‘You don’t need to cut so much. Pick your spots and sometimes let a scene play out awhile.’ I learned stuff like that from him that was invaluable. The same way with Hal Ashby.”

It was while working in a second editor’s position on TV movies that Hill “really started to learn how to edit.” He was prepared, therefore, when his big break came in 1982. He was set to join his old mentor, Kern, and his former shipping room mate, Hanley, as an assistant on Ron Howard’s first mid-major studio feature, Nightshift, when Kern suffered a stroke.

Instead of bringing in a veteran replacement Howard entrusted the lead editing to the green assistants.

“We had a lot of responsibility on our shoulders,” Hill said, “but we were too young and too stupid to be really that aware of it, and so we just did it. Bob was there to lend moral support and answer questions. The movie turned out to be a modest comedy hit, enough of a hit to get Ron Splash.”

Then came Cocoon. As Howard’s directorial career reached ever greater heights, Hill and Hanley went along for the ride every step of the way. Their nearly exclusive relationship with him is one of the closest collaborations between a director and an editor, or editors, in Hollywood. So, what makes it work?

“I think personality-wise we kind of meld,” Hill said. “We have the same interests. Our senses of humor mesh. There’s really no ego problems…and Ron is just the nicest guy in the world. We’re all really good friends. Plus, he likes our work and he likes having two film editors.”

During production Hill-Hanley cut on location and during post-production they work at a permanent editing suite Howard maintains in New York. The men work in separate rooms on separate scenes before assembling a first cut. In shaping the raw footage coming-in during the shoot, the pair enjoy great latitude.

“We have total freedom. Ron just lets us go. He’ll give us cryptic notes like, ‘I like that take’ or ‘Try to use this moment’ and that’s it. The structure and everything is up to us. He relies on us to come up with things he doesn’t expect to see. He likes to be surprised.”

Once shooting is complete Howard joins his editors and the three slowly prune the film-in-progress into a workable length.

“Ron’s kind of impatient about editing. He doesn’t like to sit around. He likes going back and forth from room to room,” Hill said, “so he’s always got something to look at. We’ll look at the movie reel by reel with him and get extensive notes from him about each scene and then we’ll go to work on them. We’ll do an entire pass and see how much time we’ve taken out and how it plays and then we’ll start again. We try to make every scene shorter without hurting it. Some of the toughest decisions are which scenes to drop. But some scenes have got to go, including some that would be very good and that I’ve grown attached to personally because I’ve worked so hard on them. It’s a slow process of whittling it down, sculpting it, refining it, honing it. We’ve got a good system worked out over 20 years now.”

The art in what Hill does comes in selecting from the myriad takes at his disposal to create a seamless film that appears to have sprung to life, organically, as “one piece,” he said, adding, “That’s what I admire about good editing.” Working for Howard means sifting through “a lot of angles and a lot of takes. He shoots a lot of film. He likes to have options. We’ve always found, especially when you need to trim a scene down, that the more coverage you have the more success you have in shortening a scene. You’re stuck if you just have one or two takes or one or two shots. Then, you have nothing to cut to. There’s no way to get out of the scene.”

Making Hill’s job easier is the fact Howard commands final cut. “Ron’s in a position where he has complete power. There’s nobody messing with him, which is great for us because there’s nothing worse than working on a film where the director loses control and the studio steps in.”

Hill lived that nightmare on one of the few Howard-less films he edited, Problem Child. He said each project has it’s own “unique problems.”

Of Howard’s films, he lists Willow and Apollo 13 as the toughest assignments because the former entailed so many special effects shots and the latter required flawlessly blending weightlessness footage shot in a plane with matching footage shot on a sound stage. The Grinch posed a new challenge when Howard broke precedent and allowed an actor, star Jim Carrey no less, free reign in the editing room to select his own takes. Hill said while the character-based A Beautiful Mind involved a lower degree of difficulty than those technically-oriented films it demanded greater finesse in shaping a cohesive performance from star Russell Crowe, whose takes ranged wildly from subdued to over-the-top, and in preserving the integrity of the narrative while shortening the piece.

 

 

Hill has been in the business long enough now that he has hands-on experience working with the full historical range of film editing equipment — from the old Movieola (“a horrible machine…a dinosaur”) through which film noisly clattered through a gate to the streamlined Kem (“much more civilized”) to today’s digital Avid system (“a huge leap forward”) that eliminates the need to ever handle film again and allows instant access to every shot.

“Now, we can finish a scene that used to take days in an hour.” The Movieola days were such drudgery, he said, “that I have to admit there were times I got so tired of editing a scene, I’d say, ‘That’s it — I don’t care anymore. Take it or leave it.’” It’s no coincidence his new confidence in his work has coincided with the labor-free new technology. “It gives us freedom to experiment” with pure editing because “you don’t have to worry about splicing, putting frames back, loading or unloading film. You can approach a scene totally without fear..do whatever you want and there’s no consequences.”

As for his and Hanley’s Oscar bid, he said, “I don’t really believe we’re going to win. Our picture isn’t showy or flashy enough. But I didn’t think so last time either.” Should he win, the statuette will likely join his Apollo 13 Oscar on a bookcase at home.

Meanwhile, he’s anxiously awaiting word on Howard’s next project and is getting antsy enough that he’s having his agent look for a temporary assignment he can fill until the call comes.

During lull periods he sometimes lends his expertise to small independent films, including the Omaha-made Shakespeare’s Coffee and The Full Ride. Even though he and Hanley have no formal agreement with Howard stipulating they will work on his films, neither has missed one in 20 years and Hill doesn’t intend missing one now that Howard is such a prominent Player in Hollywood.

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