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When Life's Scenes Don't Work, Do Some Editing

October 08, 2006|Erica Huggins | Erica Huggins is an executive vice president of motion pictures at Imagine Entertainment.

Just out of college, I landed a job at Cannon Films as an apprentice editor making $300 a week. It was a factory that churned out B movies at an alarming rate, and most of those who worked there rushed from one project to the next. Except for the editor I was assisting.

Most mornings, I would find him slumped in the trim bins surrounded by bottles of Scotch. As an apprentice I should have been rolling up and reconstituting trims, syncing dailies and labeling boxes--not cutting film. Editors cut film. But this guy figured that as long as I'd abide, he'd imbibe. One day he stopped showing up.

By the time I got the call to work on Michael Cimino's "The Sicilian" I was eager for a change. The job was to assist Francoise Bonnot, the acclaimed, chain-smoking French editor of such films as "Z" and "Missing." She had worked with Cimino on "Year of the Dragon."

We cut film on old flatbed machines called KEMs and Moviolas; there was no electronic anything. We spliced film together with tape, and we recorded sound on "mag" (sprocketed magnetic film). Overtime flowed easily. We were in the presence of Hollywood royalty. Michael had won an Academy Award for "The Deer Hunter." He was also infamous for single-handedly bankrupting United Artists while making "Heaven's Gate."

I began to assist Francoise and see how the film and its rhythms inform the cuts. Someone wasn't just letting me cut. At last, I was learning to cut. Soon into the gig I was asked to work with Michael. He loves the editing process. He loves the endless possibilities. There was always a better take, a different angle or another way to start the scene. He contemplated each word, each glance, each movement of every character. It was fascinating.

Everything Francoise did, we un-did.

The close quarters, the darkened rooms and the constant hum of KEMs felt claustrophobic. You ended up knowing way too much about the people you were working with: their eating habits, their sleeping habits, their drug habits. At times, tensions flared.

The closer we were to locking the picture, the more of a perfectionist Michael became and the more Francoise was bent on wrapping things up. She was moving toward finishing, and his goal was never to finish. Michael and Francoise were fighting, and the air inside those rooms became more stifling. I was caught in the middle.

The day after a huge fight, Michael came looking for me. He looked hung over, and there was a hint of black coloring edging his sideburns, showing off his "at home" dye job. "Erica," he said, "you're fired."

No explanation was given. Evidently, I had just gotten in the way. Time stopped. My heart raced. I looked at him for a moment and said, "You can't do this."

Michael interrupted. "I can do whatever I want. This is my movie and my editing room and you're fired and . . . " And then he said it: "You'll never work in this town again. Get out."

How could he say that?

Wouldn't "you're fired" have been enough? Why be so brutal? And why resort to the ultimate Hollywood cliche?

Eventually, I figured it out. It was just a line. It could be cut out or included. It was a line from a character that was said in the heat of the moment. It worked nicely in the scene. But ultimately, it was just a line.

Two years later, Michael called to offer me a job on his new movie. I jumped at it.

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