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PETER TONGUETTE: Director Steven Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn: a life long partnership

PETER TONGUETTE: Director Steven Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn: a life long partnership

[Editor’s Note: It’s Steven Spielberg weekend here at Press Play. We are publishing our first video essay series in direct partnership with IndieWire called Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg.  This series examines facets of Spielberg’s movie career, including his stylistic evolution as a director, his depiction of violence, his interest in communication and language, his portrayal of authority and evil, and the importance of father figures — both present and absent — throughout his work. A different version of the following article originally appeared in CinemaEditor magazine, Volume 61, Issue 1, First Quarter 2011, under the title, “Michael Kahn, A.C.E.: A Beginner’s Mind, A Professional’s Craft.” If you would like to watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 1: Introduction, go here. If you would like to view Magic and Light Chapter 2: Blood & Pulp, go here. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 3, go here. ]

I was the sort of kid who paid attention to movie credits, even if I didn’t comprehend them, so from an early age I was familiar with the name of Michael Kahn. There it was, appearing again and again at the start of some of my favorite movies as a child: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Empire of the Sun. It was always preceded by words like “Film Editor” or “Edited By.”

Years later, I had the opportunity to write for CinemaEditor magazine, the official periodical of the American Cinema Editors (ACE), an honorary society. I wrote for the magazine for five years, diligently filing story after story about editor after editor, but all the while I dreamed of speaking with one editor in particular. The editor whose name I remembered from my childhood.

The day came when it was announced that Michael Kahn would receive the ACE Career Achievement Award in February 2011, and I was asked to profile him for CinemaEditor. I don’t know that I’ve ever been as excited about an interview.

But even his closest collaborator, Steven Spielberg, manages to still get excited about working with the man. When Spielberg accepted the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1995, he singled out two of his longtime collaborators. Audiences watching the special at home that night would probably have seen the first one—John Williams—coming a mile away. But the second name Spielberg mentioned would be unfamiliar to many. “And, wherever you are, my lifelong editor, Michael Kahn, I wouldn’t be standing up here without you,” Spielberg said. (That video appears below)

“Wherever you are”? Michael Kahn really was elusive, but—as I was to discover—not in a Greta Garbo sort of way. He was so modest that when I called him up last November to ask him about the award, it was difficult to get him to talk very much about it. “I’ve gone to a lot of these events and I’ve seen all of these fellas get these awards,” he told me. “I never thought that it fit me to get one. I was delighted that my peers think me good enough to get the award. It was very surprising to me. I’m happy and thrilled that I belong in that category.”

Maybe Kahn was surprised that his career had taken him to this point. After all, it was a career that unfolded as if by accident. Born and raised in New York City, he told me he never had any thought of going into film or television in any capacity. “My parents didn’t encourage me to do this,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I got out of high school and I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

That isn’t to say that Kahn didn’t go to the movies a lot. It was a weekend ritual for him as a teenager. “I’d go Saturday, I’d go Sunday. I’d see anything that was playing,” he recalled. For an editor who would later make films like Poltergeist and Jurassic Park, Kahn’s youthful response to horror films is surprising: “If there was a scary picture on, I’d throw the coat over my head! Even today, I can edit a horror movie, but I can’t watch one! When I was a kid, I was very impressionable and it was extremely scary to me.”

He remembered going to double features. “So you went to see one and then you got the other one. I wanted to see a Western, so there was a Western, and then I got the other one. And if the other was too scary, I’d chew on my Hershey’s chocolate bar! I’d buy a big chocolate bar that had the little blocks of H-E-R-S-H-E-Y-S. I’d chew off a block and by the time the movie was over I’d finished the whole bar! I was probably as high as a kite by that time!”

Another accident: Kahn got a job at a New York ad agency that made commercials in California. “They had clients like Pepsi-Cola and Phillip Morris,” he said. “So they sent my boss out there. I was just a flunky, you know? They said, ‘Do you want to come?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I came out to the coast. I didn’t know a thing. I didn’t even know what editing was, honest to God. They did a series of commercials and I said, ‘Gee, can I stay?’ They said, ‘Sure, if you want to.’”

Kahn stayed and got a job at Desilu. It was there that he came into contact with Dann Cahn, Desilu’s editorial supervisor. “Danny was very nice to me,” Kahn said. “I was his assistant in the office. He said, ‘Listen, if you want to get ahead in this business, you’d better get into a union.’ So he got me into the editors union.”

Do you get the theme here? “And it was an accident that Danny liked me,” Kahn laughed. “He didn’t have to like me, but he did and there I was. He said, ‘I’m going to have to put you in the editing room.’ He put me in the editing room as an assistant to John Woodcock. I assisted him and I started learning about what an editor did.”

It was through osmosis that Kahn learned the art of editing. Besides Cahn and Woodcock, he absorbed the knowledge and expertise of such editors as Harry Harris (later an acclaimed director) and Bud Molin. It was Jerry London, another Desilu alum, who took Kahn from assistant editor to editor. London was editing Hogan’s Heroes when he decided to give directing a try. “We were friends, our wives were friends, we went out together,” Kahn remembered. “He said, ‘I’m starting a new show called Hogan’s Heroes for Bing Crosby Productions. If you come on as my assistant, the fifth or sixth show, I’ll make you an editor, so that I can go ahead and direct.’ Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened….

“I learned how to edit on Hogan’s Heroes. I did it for five or six years. You had a lot of different directors. They all had different styles. I learned how to make things work. By the time I was through with him Hogan’s Heroes, I was a regular cowboy, you know?”

He graduated to features with George C. Scott’s Rage in 1972. In the five years between it and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (his first film with Steven Spielberg), Kahn edited twelve films. He found something to take away from each experience. “It wouldn’t matter what film it was,” he said. “Whatever came up, I did. I did a lot of low-budget pictures and had nothing but fun.” He had just done a film for Irvin Kershner—The Return of a Man Called Horse—when he was up for Close Encounters. “Kershner knew Steven, and so did [cinematographer] Owen Roizman, and Steven respected them,” Kahn said. “They recommended me. They gave him my name and I went in for an interview with Steven. It was a fast interview, but he told me to meet him in Devils Tower, Wyoming, and I met him there and we did Close Encounters. We got along well. It all went beautifully.”

Twenty-three films later, it is still going beautifully. “It just worked out that way,” Kahn said. “What did the old guy say? ‘It was meant to be!’… I’ve worked with Steven for so many years and I’m amazed at how he’s advanced. He wasn’t what he used to be. He’s better. You become a sidekick. You become a partner. I’m very comfortable with him. We spend a lot of time together in the editing room.”

Since Kahn edits as Spielberg is filming, a rough cut is usually ready in a week or less after production ends. “I edit right behind him,” he said. “I mount the show and I put it together. And at least he’s not going to be shocked when he sees the scenes because he’s seen them all. That saves a lot of time.”

During the filming of Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg repeatedly visited the editing room to look at the opening D-Day landing sequence, which had already been cut. As Kahn recalled, “I said, ‘How come you’re looking at it so much?’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t want the ending to be similar to the beginning. I want to keep it all fresh. And the beginning inspires me.’ He kept looking at it.” The scene couldn’t have provided Spielberg with inspiration had the film not been assembled according to Kahn’s method of cutting as shooting progresses.

Spielberg’s versatility has meant that Kahn has worked in virtually every genre, from science-fiction (Close Encounters) to adventure (Raiders of the Lost Ark), from historical drama (Empire of the Sun) to comedy (The Terminal). “There are some directors that do one genre,” he observed. “They stay with what they know. Steven is more adventurous. He’ll go and try different things. We were in Poland doing Schindler’s List and from ILM, in a big saucer, we’d be getting shots in from Jurassic Park. We’d be looking at them in Poland. I had my work print with me, so I would cut those shots in as they came in. We’re doing two shows at the same time, but it was fun.”

Even if he has worked in a particular genre before (as he has in the three Indiana Jones sequels), Kahn does his best to approach each film with a fresh set of eyes. “I try to forget what I have done in the past and drop it, so I’m not taking any baggage with me,” he said. “I don’t differentiate between one thing or another. The next thing I’m going to is like the first time I’m doing it. I find it fresh and new. There’s a phrase that I always use. It’s called ‘beginner’s mind.’ I come in with beginner’s mind, like it’s the first time I’ve done something and it’s brand new…. Each time I do a show, I try to forget everything that happened on the previous project. I come in with an open, free mind, like I haven’t edited before. I’m open to the director’s ideas because that’s the one you’re working with. With directors, I don’t talk too much. I listen. By listening and watching, that’s how I learn how to put it together and [understand] what the director had in mind.”

Kahn didn’t mince words in explaining why his collaboration with Spielberg has been so successful: “After all, let’s be frank, I’m working with the best. There’s no doubt about it. I don’t say that because I’m with him. If I wasn’t with him, I’d say it. His memory is unbelievable. I feel I have a great memory, but he doesn’t forget. He likes me to put in temp music from other scores. He remembers the temps I put in years ago! It blows my mind. He’ll remember something. ‘Oh, you used that before!’ ‘Yeah, but it was ten years ago!’”

I got a scoop as my interview with Michael Kahn was coming to a close. Going in, I knew that all of the films he made with Spielberg had been cut on film, but then Kahn told me something as we were talking a bit about War Horse: “I’m doing a film with him now and it’s the first time that we’re working on the Avid. He decided that he’d like to try it. I was already experienced on the Avid.”

Spielberg is famous for cutting on film—“Steven likes the smell of it, the feel of it, the history of it,” Kahn told me—so this was a startling revelation, but in a way it made sense. It’s a testament to what Kahn called Spielberg’s adventurousness. He doesn’t stay settled in one genre or in one manner of working, even if he’s been working that way for a very long time.

This doesn’t daunt Kahn, though, who was similarly unflappable when talking about the challenges of editing The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Spielberg’s first animated film and also his first in 3-D. “It’s all the same, no matter what they do technologically,” Kahn said. “What I do is the same. Being on the right angle at the right time and trying to help the story editorially. It doesn’t change, no matter if it’s 3-D, 4-D or 10-D!”

I could hear the enthusiasm in Michael Kahn’s voice as he talked to me about his craft. “When I was coming up as an editor,” he said, “editing was a transitory stage. [Editors] wanted to be directors. I was one of the few who was happy as an editor. I just wanted to be the best that I could be at it.” His suggestion to young editors who are just beginning? “I would say to see as many motion pictures as you can. How are you going to grow unless you see styles and see what people are doing?” In a way, it’s not unlike his own unwitting preparation for the job, watching all of those double features as a teenager in New York.

“To tell you the truth,” he laughed, “I can’t even find a big Hershey’s bar anymore!”

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter’s website here.

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