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Terminator Film Editor Comes to COM

Oscar-nominated Mark Goldblatt to speak at Cinematheque series

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Mark Goldblatt compares his work as a film editor to building a house. There needs to be a precise blueprint—“otherwise,” he says, “you build the house, you walk up the stairs, but the stairs collapse and the whole building goes with it.” When this happens to a big-budget film, it’s a catastrophe.

“To not go over budget on a film, especially one with a lot of special effects, you need to work closely with the studio and the director to get your preplanning to a very precise place,” Goldblatt says. “The editor works up front to make a plan.”

He should know. Over the course of a 30-year career, Goldblatt has edited some of Hollywood’s most successful films, including Rise of the Planet of the Apes, X-Men: The Last Stand, Armageddon, True Lies, The Terminator, and Starship Troopers. Along the way, he has worked with noted film directors, among them James Cameron, Ron Howard, and Michael Bay.

Goldblatt has been nominated for an Academy Award (Best Film Editing, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and two Eddies from the American Cinema Editors (True Lies and Terminator 2). He won a Saturn Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films USA for Piranha.

Goldblatt is this week’s guest at the BU Cinematheque series, a College of Communication program that brings filmmakers to campus to screen and discuss their work. Starship Troopers, which Goldblatt edited in 1997, will be shown Thursday night. The next night, he will speak about his Hollywood career.

His visit is cosponsored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS)—the group that hands out the Oscars. Goldblatt serves on the AMPAS board of governors.

BU Today spoke to Goldblatt about his career, his favorite films, and his advice for aspiring film editors.

Mark Goldblatt film editor

BU Today: What is the editor’s role in the filmmaking process?

Goldblatt: Editors have a lot of responsibility in the filmmaking process because we are many things. One of the most basic is to work with directors to actualize their vision of the script. We try to interpret the material that has been shot in order to tell the story in the clearest, most entertaining, and concise way possible. We try to reach the audience and get them to react to the piece’s various plot elements and character dynamics. But films take on a life of their own, and editors have to shape it and manipulate it.

Another thing we do is interface with the picture’s other department heads, like the camera director and the art director. Editors are the first people to see the footage shot the previous day. The director and his crew are working very hard trying to prepare for the next day, to establish what they will shoot. So editors have the luxury of objectivity in our editing room, really looking and studying what was shot for technical purposes. We can see if there is a problem with the lens, if there is a camera magazine that has dirt in it. Is there a performance issue? Are we missing an important close-up? All kinds of issues like that. We’re like backup for everyone else, specifically the director. We are reinterpreting the material with a set of special eyes.

How has the industry changed since you edited your first feature film, Piranha, in 1978?

When I started out, I was delivering coffee and donuts, but I knew the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. I discovered that the real world was like film school, except I was making a little bit more money. On Piranha, I worked with director Joe Dante, and he took me under his wing. I then went on to Grand Theft Auto, directed by a young Ron Howard, who was also terrific. These were exploitation pictures, meaning they exploited good-natured action, sex, and violence all in the same frame. Piranha was inspired by Jaws, which was a huge exploitation feature. We had a real sense of humor about them, and the audience loved them.

But something happened around the time of Jaws—suddenly studios were making films for more money. The exploitation features became the big “A” pictures; they became the main street paradigms. Finally, in 1984, six years after my first editing job, I worked with Jim Cameron on The Terminator. I knew him somewhat, but we hit it off. That film wasn’t made for a lot of money, but it was a really passionate piece of work. It was one of the most satisfying experiences I ever had, and it surprised a lot of people.

How has the technology evolved over the past three decades?

I went to the London Film School, and we worked on something called a picture synchronizer. You could see the film and would crank it through this little 24-second frame motor, and you could hear the film going forward and backward. And there were three interlocked gangs, for magnetic sound, because we were always cutting for picture and magnetic sound. You would have two pieces of film—one was the picture and the other was a 35-mm magnetic film, and you would have to keep them in sync. You would have to line up the audio with the video. When I came to the United States, I used the Moviola, which looked like a giant industrial sewing machine. You would cut it and build it on reels. Essentially it was hands-on labor.

When digital technology came in, like Avid and Lightworks, it really freed us up in many ways, because we no longer had to go searching for a piece of film; now you could find it at the touch of a button. Digital filmmaking has given us the ability to intercut things very quickly and do a lot more work on sound than we were ever able to do before. I use Avid when I edit today.

You’ve edited a lot of films noted for big special effects. Since you have actors in front of a green screen, are those scenes difficult to edit?

I’ve been editing visual effects for some time now. You have to imagine the background the actors are acting in front of. Most of the bugs in Starship Troopers were computer-animated, CGI, so you had to just imagine what they were going to do. For example, let’s say we have a character that runs into frame and he looks frightened, so we turn around and we see a giant bug coming towards him. Then we cut to a wide shot and we see the giant bug grab a trooper up by the collar and swing him around.

When you edit, you have to figure out how long these shots are going to be on the screen. I don’t have to have the giant bug yet because I have the actor. He is on a rig and on a certain cue he’ll be picked up and tossed through the air. So if you use your imagination, the first shot is the bug’s point of view; the bug is coming in. It’s almost musical; it’s rhythmic. Bug, bug, bug, cut. Let’s suppose I say that shot is going to be three and a half, four seconds. I’ll do it several times, and I’ll try to act out the bug. On that film, I worked out the rhythm with director Paul Verhoeven, who was very precise. As the editor, I wanted to do what the director wanted. I would work with the animator anytime we were trying to lock a visual effect scene.

When we do visual effect scenes, we make an agreement with the animation house that we are going to lock the scene within maybe three days so they can start on animating these bug characters. So we have to use our imaginations to see how long these shots are going to last.

The technology has improved since Starship Troopers came out in 1997. What we do now in a big special effects scene is very low-resolution animations, called previsualization. We would literally have those bugs drawn and then cut together the scene before the actors had even filmed their part. We do that so we can get a sense of how the scene is going to play out. The shots are so expensive, routinely $60,000 per shot, so you can’t just make it up as you go.

How do you whittle down hours of footage into a two-hour film?

It’s like a relationship between a journalist and an editor: the editor marks up the copy with a red pencil. They might switch paragraphs around, make it 750 words shorter. There’s a famous quote that the film editor does the final rewrite of the movie. It’s not so rare that when you do your first edit, you have a three-hour film. But most studios don’t want to release three-hour movies. Now I’m not saying three hours is not the best length for a great film—heck, some great films are five hours long. But in commercial distribution, the studios want tighter movies, because I think they are going after young audiences, and everyone’s attention spans are shorter now. They want them tight and filled with energy.

Editors have to make sure that the movie is readable by the audience and that they are getting exactly what they have to be getting—that they laugh in the right places, get scared in the suspenseful moments, and so forth. Sometimes you slow the film down, sometimes you speed it up, move it, cut and half a scene. You can change the dialogue. If two people are talking, you can cut to the person listening, you can add new dialogue from the person talking with an over-the-shoulder shot.

Can you talk more specifically about how you approach a film?

First, don’t panic. Start at the beginning. Right after the first day of shooting is complete, you get the footage and start to edit those scenes. Even then, though you don’t have the rest of the material, you can start going through it, studying it, taking notes, and cutting out pieces you think are especially good. I put them together into what I call a select roll. I start using the script as a guide and start editing the material together and try to get the best and most consistent performances, because sometimes actors give you variance on line readings, especially early on when they are finding the character. Then you want to tell the story as best you can, trying to make the best scene you can. At the end of the day, you have a whole scene edited, and you just keep doing that. You work together with the director, and before you know it, you have an edit of the whole movie.

What happens when your vision doesn’t coincide with the director’s?

You have to be making the same movie. I’ve been brought in on movies where things aren’t working for one reason or another. The director or the studio brings me in saying, ‘Help! What do you think?’ Then you can be completely objective. I may not agree with every decision the director makes, but it’s a creative process. It’s incumbent upon me to voice that point of view. But at the end of the day, it’s the director’s cut—they get to make the choices, and you have to know when to back off even if you have a different point of view. It is a collaboration, and you have to be open to anything.

Among the directors you’ve worked with, do you have a favorite?

I’ve worked with a lot of great directors, and they are all different. I have my favorites. I just coedited Rise of the Planet of the Apes for director Rupert Wyatt. We had a great time on that; it was his first big studio film. Certainly Paul Verhoeven, James Cameron, and Michael Bay, who is a great visual stylist and is constantly inventive. All strong directors have a very precise way of viewing film. I find it great to work with different kinds of people. The best are those who know what they are doing, collaborate, and have fun.

Is there a film you’ve enjoyed editing more than any other?

Well, they are all different. It’s like trying to choose your favorite child. I really loved the experience and the final product of the very first Terminator movie, because it was such a tight schedule and I had to edit it very quickly. It wasn’t an expensive movie because the resources were so limited. Jim did an amazing job of writing and directing and was able to make every penny look like a hundred bucks. There were some studio politics, I guess, but it was just a great labor of love for everyone concerned.

These days when you are working on a $100 million picture, the stakes are very high. There is a lot more pressure, which isn’t a bad thing, but you have to be at the top of your game. The Terminator was like this band of young filmmakers working our asses off. Did we have any idea that The Terminator would become a household name? No. We just hoped it would be successful, and obviously Jim got to go on and make another movie.

You’ve said that Starship Troopers is one of your favorite films. What works about that film?

It’s a film that works on a lot of levels at once. It’s political science, it’s science fiction, you can take it as a straight genre picture. It’s subversive, because it challenges preconceived notions, which is why a lot of people didn’t get it when it came out. They took it at face value. As a practical experience of filmmaking, it was a very carefully planned movie, but there was plenty of room for experimentation and innovation because we had a good lengthy postproduction period. I had the opportunity to be very involved in many aspects of the movie, like meeting with the visual effects companies, working with the composer, and sound effects. Sometimes you are so busy editing that you don’t have the opportunity to be that involved.

What are you working on now?

Nothing set in stone yet. Talking about next projects.

What’s your advice to students hoping to break into the business?

Very simply, have a clear plan of what you want to do. If you don’t have a plan, investigate the options. Be tenacious. Get the training you need. If you want to get into editing, you have to learn the programs and the equipment and become good at them. And last, I would say watch a lot of good movies to pick up what makes a good movie. See if you can figure out why it is well made.

It’s weird—I do all of these action films, but some of my favorites are science fiction and horror. I would watch everything that people think is good—for example, films from directors John Ford, Howard Hawks, Michelangelo Antonioni, Samuel Fuller, and Nicholas Ray, to name a few. Soak these influences up and see how far you can soar.

Starship Troopers will be screened for students tomorrow night, Thursday, October 6, at 7 p.m., in COM 101, 640 Commonwealth Ave. Mark Goldblatt will speak on Friday, October 7, at 7 p.m., in COM 101. The events, part of the BU Cinematheque series, are free and open to the public.

1 Comments
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

One Comment on Terminator Film Editor Comes to COM

  • Nathan on 10.05.2011 at 11:09 am

    Good Interview Amy – first class

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