In Conversation with Hollywood Editor: Jeremiah O’Driscoll (Part 1)

The Norwich Film Festival had the pleasure of catching up with the brilliant Hollywood Film Editor Jeremiah O’Driscoll (J O’D).  His editing credits include: The Polar Express (2004), A Christmas Carol (2009),  Flight (2012),  The Walk (2015), and most recently Allied (2016).  Jeremiah has also contributed his editing skills on films such as Addams Family Values (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), The Birdcage (1996),  Contact (1997), What Lies Beneath (2000) and Cast Away (2000).  Having worked on numerous Hollywood Films we were thrilled to speak with him about his experiences working in the Film Industry.

(Photo Credit: Jennifer Gregori)

Here is Part 1 (which is FULL of valuable insights and advice!) Part 2 will follow later this month!

J O’D:  First, I would just like to note an ironic truth.  I’ve not made a film of my own, short or otherwise, since I was in my third year of undergraduate study at NYU.  That would be 1983.  Just wanted to clear the space.  In this regard I may be the least accomplished person to read these pages so all I can say to your audience is: keep doing what you are doing… Cinema needs you!

NFF: When did you start to think about film as a career?

J O’D:  Shortly after I saw this image for the first time:

It is a moment from Roma, Citta Aperta by Roberto Rossellini.  I was probably 13 or 14 when I saw the film on a television broadcast very late one night.

NFF: How easy was it for you to break into the film industry?…..

J O’D: I can only think NYU regretted my acceptance into the Undergraduate program. I was not a stellar student.  The program was very rigorous and did a fine job of weeding out those of us who clearly would not ‘make it’ in the industry.  After school, exhausted, I didn’t want to have anything to do with film, television or cinema.  I devoted myself to volunteering on an ambitious documentary project that dealt with a then current famine in the Sahel region of Africa.  After several months travelling to London, making contacts & training for the shoot, one of the largest funds financing the project dropped out.  I returned to the states with only the slightest prospect of being involved when the project re-formed.  This is when Stephen King entered my life.  I was living friends just north of Bangor, Maine when the Stephen, the local celebrity, arranged for one of his films to be shot in his home state.   A blank sheet of paper sat in the typewriter in front of me.  Keep thinking that I had nothing to write on this “resume”… since I had no palpable credits and didn’t care to make some up – I started to write a list of all of the equipment I was familiar with and which of the items I could fix should they be broken.  

In the NYU undergraduate film program at that time most of the equipment one would use on a daily basis has been used by students continuously for decades. In fact the Bell & Howell Filmo (we shot most of our 16 mm b&w masterpieces with) invariably had painted on it, ‘NBC News – Saigon’…. you get the picture.

My resume must have been the strangest ever to be passed across a desk.  The words ‘Moviola’ and ‘Steenbeck’ caught someone’s eye and I was hired to be the Location Apprentice Editor on Creepshow 2.

A professional cutting room in those days would seem Dickensian to any reasonable person today.  18 hours of work, most of it spent over a hot machine that stamped a code on every foot of film. In between takes of rushes one would oil the platen and shift the numbers with a wooden stick.  Smell of graphite in the oil permeates you, your soul, your clothes and the room.  Lesson number one from one of the UK’s finest Sound Editors (yes, back in those days the Sound Editor was present at the shoot from the first day):  ‘Be fast and be impeccable in your work or you will be replaced immediately.’  Everyone chain-smoked all day with the exception of myself and the First Assistant.  When I wasn’t at the hot Acmade encoding film I would ask the First Assistant to teach me how to sync rushes and other facets of the job.  The pressure was extreme and each day I had a migraine from the intensity of the job. It is a great wonder that I lasted, or would ever have wanted to do the Apprentice job again…but hunger is a wonderful motivation in life at times and if you have never had the benefit of its unique persuasiveness I strongly recommend that you give it a try (within reason, that is).

About a year after Creepshow 2 had returned to the U.K. for post-production I was living in Atlanta, Georgia.  Yes, back at my parents house.  I flip thorough the yellow pages and find a small Mom & Pop lab that develops film for commercials & industrials.  I present myself as an Assistant Editor boldly exaggerating the depth of my knowledge.  The phone rings a week later and I’m told a feature production is moving into town and I’m given the address of the Production Office. The next complication is actually doing the job I was hired to do.  My first meeting with the Editor – understandably I was nervous… somewhere another slighter exaggeration enters my mind and I tell the Editor, although I may be experienced in my job, the sum total of my work was with British Editors (the system of work and cutting room organisation is very different stateside).  I would be more than pleased if I could give him exactly what he wanted if he would only show me, in great detail, precisely how he wanted everything done.  Please note – I am no longer this person and, in retrospect, find it hard to believe myself.

From that point on I was working continuously.  A Writer’s strike in Los Angeles caused many productions to travel to Atlanta to shoot… and I racked up many credits in a short amount of time… sometimes as Apprentice, sometimes as Assistant and sometimes even as an Editor myself.  After about two years the migraines vanished and I realised that I actually knew how to do anything I might be asked to do.   Wonderful films came my way… ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ foremost amongst them.

NFF: ……. And what have been the biggest learning curves for you in this field?

J O’D: I would say, finding how to serve someone. Truly serve them. Help them get the movie they imagined years earlier, whatever spark which starts the entire process.  It took years to appreciate that I, as an Editor, do not create anything.  What I have & bring to my job is a craft and a certain amount of experience.  It is the person in the chair next to me who creates the film.  [For more on this point one could refer to Soetsu Yanagi’s brilliant book, The Unknown Craftsman. Ostensibly about the craft of pottery his acute observations inform many other crafts as well].

In the best of situations cutting a film is really a long conversation between the Editor and the Director.  You have to build that relationship and trust,  you have to be a safe space for your Director.  The Director should find the cutting room a refuge from the folks who constantly say ‘no!’.

The second biggest learning curve is, ‘To not fix what isn’t broken’.  There is always a place and time for judgement and criticism… but that will arise in its proper time. Follow the Director’s intention to the best ability you have.  Memorise your rushes.  Note extensively when you feel that tug of ‘movement of spirit’ when you watch your rushes.  That is what makes magic on screen.  Whilst cutting Flight I found this shot of Denzel, waking in a hospital room after having crash-landed his plane,  and I was just so moved and transfixed by Denzel and the depth of emotion – real living in the moment – in this one take.  Every take Denzel does is superb, but his one take just reached deeply into some recess of empathy and suffering I didn’t know I possessed.  So, suffice it to say, the Editor’s job is to protect that spark – if you are lucky enough to be given that gift by an actor or a Director.  Most of my job is being vigilant to not mess up the material I’ve been given.

NFF: Looking at your career as an editor it appears that you have an incredibly close collaboration with the brilliant Director Robert Zemeckis. How did this working relationship come about and why do you think you work so well together? 

J O’D: A year or two before first working with Mr. Zemeckis I was still living and working in Atlanta.  I had done a massive amount of work in the intervening years and worked with many Directors and Editors.  Occasionally a low or no-budget film would come along and at this time I was asked to Edit one. I really didn’t have the craft to Edit yet, as the job of the Assistant/Apprentice is vastly different from that of the Editor, yet I did want to be helpful and the show was unfortunately a mess.  I was starting to have an ulcer while trying as I might the material just wouldn’t cut together.  Learning a bit about the sport of boxing (and the workouts involved) solved the ulcer issue but I knew I wasn’t ready to cut and I couldn’t deny it.  What I wrote as my goal was to go back to the start and Apprentice for a great Editor.  Again – saying something out loud to other people makes a wheel move somewhere, or as they say in the Zendo, ‘When the student is ready the Master appears’.  Last on the Mohicans hired me to be a location Apprentice Editor in Asheville, North Carolina.  Arthur Schmidt was the Editor on the show. He was sceptical of me for the longest time but after some weeks I was able to prove I knew enough and would be handy enough to keep around.  This was also my first time working with Michael Mann.  Some weeks into the show Michael dismissed the Second Assistant from Artie’s room for losing track of a note he had given the day before. I was summoned into the room to take notes for Artie and Michael.  It was a real education… very demanding, always being on point.  When Mohicans was finished shooting in North Carolina post production was moved to Los Angeles. I accompanied the show west.

Eventually Artie moved over to cut Death Becomes Her and I followed him onto that show about a month later.  It was my first large scale Hollywood Studio movie … we worked on the Universal lot in bungalows near Amblin.  Again, I went directly into Artie’s room to take notes, the schedule on the show was very demanding and most of the time people worked 7 days a week – to have the film released on the appointed date.  Artie and I worked together for a total of about 10 years.  I worked my way up through the ranks to First Assistant… we worked with wonderful filmmakers, Zemeckis, Sonnenfeld, Mike Nichols (twice), Frank Marshall, Andy Davis…  The films have some of the best memories, Forrest Gump, The Birdcage, Cast Away (Pictured below) …

Bob first asked me to cut sound on the opening shot of Contact.  It was conceived as a history of broadcasting moving backwards in time as the camera pulled away from earth.  We had been assured that an entire sound department would be hired to research and create this opening audio montage… I can only assume the budget was getting tighter as soon it was on my shoulders to accomplish.  Somehow I survived that one.  Immediately after Contact Artie and moved I over to work on Primary Colors with Mike Nichols at Universal. Mike had already been shooting his film for about 6 weeks when we showed up to work. Artie had another Editor start the show so that the cut would be ‘up to camera’ when we unpacked our bags.  We didn’t know at the time, but soon found out, that the other Editor was very intimidated with working for Nichols, I think he must have show a scene to Mike and it didn’t go well so he just choked and had only cut about 7 minutes of the film.  An entire wall of rushes from the floor to the roof awaited cutting.  Months of work…  As Artie was leaving for the night he turned to me and joked, ‘Why don’t you cut this?’   When he arrived the next morning I had 3 new sequences ready to show him.  He reviewed them in depth with me, spending an hour or more.  Discussing the cuts, but never saying they were wrong even if I knew they didn’t always work.  I had the benefit of a legendary Editor fixing my short assemblies, I witnessed the judgement and critical thinking he put into every edit.  Nothing was ever done in haste… all my years working on film had burned this into my head, ‘Every cut is a commitment’.

NFF: Robert Zemeckis as pushed the filmmaking boundaries with a selection of his films. For instance, The Polar Express (2004) felt quite revolutionary at the time of release as it embraced Motion/Performance Capture Technology.  How was it working with this particular technology? 

J O’D: There was quite a learning curve in the opening weeks of Production. I had been cutting the storyboards/animation reel for almost a year by the time we started to capture the film working alongside of R. Orlando Duenas.  The technical aspect of making the movie is a subject of its own which would too lengthy a discussion to touch upon now.  If you have seen the film, in Santa Claus Square, toward the end of the film – you have Santa, played by Tom Hanks, sitting on his lap is our Hero Boy, played by Tom Hanks, in the crowd we see the Conductor, played by Tom Hanks and occasionally we cut to the Hobo, played by Tom Hanks.  What you walk away from once you have captured your scene is only dots moving the 3 dimensional space.  There is no negative, there is no film.  You have multiple reference video cameras – about 20 or so including witness cameras – similar to surveillance cameras which help you orchestrate how to build a scene…  those dots drive digital avatars in a digital set only existing in a computer.

Part 1 of Interview by Craig Higgins

The post In Conversation with Hollywood Editor: Jeremiah O’Driscoll (Part 1) appeared first on Norwich Film Festival.

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