There are very few editors with a resume as filled with hit after hit, like Oscar nominee Mark Goldblatt, ACE.
From his editing infancy on Piranha (1978), through The Howling, The Terminator, Robocop, True Lies, Show Girls, Starship Troopers, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, xXx: State of the Union, X-Men: The Last Stand, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Chappie. And his most recent film – and possibly his last – Death Wish. A body of work that led the American Cinema Editors to bestow a Career Achievement Award on him earlier this year (2018).
I have had him on my list of editors that I’ve wanted to interview for several years. Finally he had time to sit down and chat, and pour out a lifetime of great editing advice.
For the last 14 years, his assistant editor has been Yvonne Valdez, who was credited as an Additional Editor on Death Wish. She’s served as an assistant editor for nearly 25 years, most recently on A Wrinkle in Time, and also has numerous editing credits on independent films. I spoke to her near the end of the interview and also discussed some technical and workflow issues for Death Wish which are available exclusively over on the Frame.io website. They are proud sponsors of Art of the Cut for the next two months!
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Video collaboration for the 21st century
HULLFISH: It’s really interesting to me that you have edited with a couple of directors that also edit. You cut with Joe Dante, as one example.
GOLDBLATT: Joe was an editor before he was a director. It was his metier. He actually started editing on a projector. He did a thing called the Schlitz Movie Orgy (1968) way before he did Hollywood Boulevard. It was a compendium of a lot of public domain footage of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. It was an amazing piece of work. Basically, he would just take bits from different movies and juxtapose them with other bits. Somehow he and producer Jon Davison got seed money from the Schlitz Brewing Company, and the results were shown on college campuses around the country.
HULLFISH: Another guy you cut with, who has taken some credit for editing on some of his films, is James Cameron.
GOLDBLATT: Yes, though when I first worked with him, he wasn’t editing. Jim, as you know, is very technical. He always felt that it was incumbent to educate himself on every aspect of the craft. He learned to use movie cameras by taking them apart and putting them back together again. He learned to master all of the equipment. Jim would usually know as much about the camera as the DP. He was always able to make very informed choices.
He understood editing too. When I worked with him, he wasn’t a hands-on editor, but he realized that to truly master the craft, he needed to become one.
To get the most out of the true power of editing you have to submerge yourself in the process. You have to actually do it. You have to get into the footage and swim through it and manipulate it. It’s different when you sit outside of it and tell somebody what you think you want them to do. It’s another thing when you’re in the flow, in the streams — in the ocean, with the fish and you’re dealing with all of that stuff. You do it by hands-on control and that’s how you get the “a-ha moment.”
To get it to the true nth degree of satisfaction, you always have to do it yourself. In order to truly know what all your options are, you’ve got to take the pill. You’ve got to drop the acid and fly.
HULLFISH: You were second unit director on Robocop and you directed Dead Heat and The Punisher. How did your editing skills translate to being a better director?
GOLDBLATT: My editing skills tell me what I think I need to make a scene better. Of course, as an editor, you’re dealing with a film that’s already shot, so you’re a little late in the game to be writing out a list of shots that you wish you had. One of the things that editing gives you is an understanding of the different pieces of film and what you want to cover a scene with. As the storyteller, you want to highlight aspects of the story or the psychology of the story, or the psychology of the characters involved in the story — the conflict and the quest and the mystery of the film. How would you tell this story? There’s a billion different ways in which to do it. In editing, you know what those ways are, just by compartmentalizing it into the type of building blocks or shots that you have to make the final picture. They’re rudimentary skills in a sense.
You can manipulate space and time. You can jump into the future or the past. You can tell stories linearly or not. A lot of times people make the analogy between making clothing and making a movie. A movie is a suit made out of whole cloth. You start with a concept. You cut it to a design pattern. You put the pieces together, trying to make them work together — making a great piece of clothing or a great piece of cinema. It’s a magical mystery tour. It’s technological. It’s intellectual. It’s spiritual. You can be very decisive in what you’re doing and methodical: I will go to this close up of the hand coming down, and now a big close-up of the quill of the pen.
It’s all based on the script, but once you shoot the script you’re in another place. You have the script; it’s on the table. But THIS is what you’ve shot and this is what you’ve got to make a movie out of. You can manipulate that footage. You can add new lines of dialogue. You can add shots to it if you have the time or the inclination or the inspiration and keep making it better and better and better. You get in tune with the process and it tells you when to make the next cut. You’re finding the rhythms. You let the universe speak to you and tell you where to make the next cut. It creates the next layer of storytelling.
Editing a movie during dailies is a race against time. You need to deliver intelligence and feedback to your filmmaking collaborators concerning what has already been shot, and about what might be needed in addition. You’ve got to let them know.
HULLFISH: On the shows you directed, what was your relationship with your editor?
GOLDBLATT: The best projects I’ve worked on and the best collaborations I’ve had are occasions when the director lets me loose to do my thing. When I direct, I need to take advantage of the editor’s objectivity. They’re fresh to the material. They have no emotional investment in the creation of that material. They don’t care how many hours that you spent on set to get this great crane shot. The director wants it in the movie because of how long it took to get. The editor knows the movie is better off without it.
You’ve got to be ruthless with the material, because you’re making a movie. It’s a process in which you’re sifting and winnowing through the material and responding to it in ways that you didn’t know you were going to be responding to because the material takes on a life of its own.
HULLFISH: Why did you choose not to co-edit with those editors that you worked with? Or did you, and you were just uncredited?
GOLDBLATT: I did do behind-the-scenes editing, because I couldn’t resist and I think I’m pretty good at it. Why wouldn’t I want to utilize myself? Of course I want to edit my own movie, but I’m also in collaboration with another person. That is key to the moviemaking process. It’s such a collaborative process, and one of the things that you get is a type of objectivity that the editor comes to it with a fresh perspective that’s different than yours.
You, as the director, already have a perspective. You created the shot-list. You did the storyboards. You conceptualized what your intention was with that footage, and you conceptualized how that footage would be shot. Then you shot it and interacted with the actors and they had their input. Different things happened: the sun went down too fast and you lost your light. You had to make the scene work even though you didn’t get to shoot everything on your shot-list. Whatever it is that happened, you now have a new reality. You have to deal with the film in a new way.
That’s where the collaboration with somebody who has objectivity can help you. As a director, I want an editor to show me what they’re thinking, not what they think I want to see. I know what I want. Tell me something new. Show me what you think is working and what isn’t. Take the opportunity to make this movie project YOUR movie project as well. Imprint your identity into it, too. That’s collaboration.
I respect the work that my collaborators do. I give them the space to do what they do and then we argue and we disagree, then compromise and move on. That’s healthy creative collaboration.. Let’s find the best possible way to present each moment in the movie.
HULLFISH: One of the other collaborations you’ve done – in addition to your collaboration with directors – is your collaboration with other editors. Many times, you’ve been the solo editor, but you’ve also edited with groups of other editors. How does that work and what are some of the things you learned from the people you’ve edited with?
GOLDBLATT: When I have edited with other people, it’s usually because the picture is so vast: alot of footage or very challenging structures or a short schedule. Whatever it is, there’s a reason why you need to have more hands on deck.
The best thing is when you are dealing with people who are like-minded; who respect each other’s work; who are willing to give up their ego and have a shared creative experience.
Of course you must all be in the same rhythmic relationship as the other editors and the director.
The director has the vision. The director is the metteur en scene. He designed the scene and hopefully put a lot of his or her personality into what they did to make it their own. Your job is to find the pulse of the film and understand the intentions of the director and work toward the director’s intention to an end product that reflects what the director wants: what the movie wants to be.
The movie takes on a life of its own and you have to shepherd it and work collaboratively with your fellow editors. Sometimes you work on different parts of the movie; sometimes you take alternating scenes; then we look at it together and discuss it.
HULLFISH: The political understanding of the edit room is one of the true signs of a veteran editor like you. You understand what to say, when to say, and which person to say it to.
GOLDBLATT: I try. Sam Fuller used to say, “Movies are a battlefield.” Instead of calling action, he’d have a gun and he’d shoot it in lieu of calling “Action!”.
It’s a struggle of ideas. It’s a struggle of keeping your sanity and keeping your vision. But also switching directions at the drop of a dime because that’s where the movie is taking you to go. It’s like riding a wild stallion. You have to control the ride and become one with it. It requires that you be relaxed. That you don’t take things too emotionally. That you are present. You’ve got to be very conscious of the footage. You’ve got to be conscious of the personalities behind the scenes, but always putting the movie first. Whatever it takes to make it work.
That kind of passion gets you a long way down the road. It’s a sacred trust. If we, who love film, give the investment of our time, our efforts, our talent, our consciousness, and our ability work as a team to help further the positive aspects of creativity then we’re in a good place.
It’s better if you’re not second-guessing and not running on fear. There’s a lot of fear in making movies. There’s a lot of money at stake. A lot of people are worried about their jobs. You’ve got to let all of that stuff go, and you’ve got to seize the film and commit.
HULLFISH: There are two opposing ideas in what you said. One is that you need to manipulate the film. That’s a very common idea for editors: that you have to manipulate it. The other idea is that the film has to speak to you and you’ve got to ride it like an animal and let it go where the animal wants to go.
GOLDBLATT: Correct. You’ve got to be conscious of what’s going on in the first place. You’ve got to be able to watch the movie, and that’s not always so easy to do. The character arcs have to ebb and flow. Maybe there’s a performance issue. Actors may be grappling to find the hook of their performance, which may result in a false moment on the screen or maybe it’s a moment of self-questioning of the character himself. That can be used to further the intensity of the story and the depth of the emotion.
What is a movie, except, as Bogdanovich calls them: “pieces of time all strung together to create a reality?”
You have to be able to respond to the quirkiness. There’s beautiful moments to be had and sometimes you have to let go of your preconceptions of where it’s going. Let the footage work for you. Objectivity is the hardest thing for an editor to hold onto. You need to be awake.
HULLFISH: How do you maintain your objectivity? What’s a key? What tricks do you have?
GOLDBLATT: I have a lot of tricks. One trick is that I would often look at the film in different formats. I may play a scene back squeezed into a 1.33 frame, so I’m not looking at it the normal way I’m looking at it. I might watch it in black and white, so I’m not affected by the emotion of the color. Sometimes I’ll stand up. I’ll walk around. Walter Murch used to put cutouts of silhouettes of people in the second and third row of a movie, watching the screen and put that on his monitor, so he feels like he’s watching it in a theater. Anything you can do to make things different.
When I used to cut on film, I stood all the time. I had two Moviolas side by side and I’d have a bit of film around my neck and I’d move between them. Walter Murch, who was a great poet of explaining the art of editing calls it “a dance.” The flow of the movie that you’re making is very musical and very rhythmic. You’re tapping into dreams. You have the rhythms of the performances, rhythms of character, rhythms of relationships. So you have to be responsive to the dialectics, the oppositional juxtapositions of characters and images and at the same time there’s the flow of actually cutting the film. There’s a rhythm to the physicality of cutting the film, splicing the film, taping the film, running the film backwards and forwards. It’s a dance of physicality that is, nowadays, the keyboard and the mouse. There’s the creative thought of thinking about the next cut. There’s a rhythm to the whole thing and there’s an interconnectivity between the actual intellectual creative process and the physicality of it.
HULLFISH: Do you miss the physicality of cutting on film?
GOLDBLATT:I do. I’ll never forget it and I think that lives within me, and I translate my approach to editing digitally into filmic reality as well. For example, when we were cutting film on celluloid, we were using strips of film, 24 frames per second, so you would think in terms of frames. We still think in terms of frames even though we’re not really holding frames anymore. We’re using frames as subdivisions that allow us to talk about durations of time. I’ll say, “Why don’t you try cutting two frames off the tail of that shot. Then let’s give him two frames on the entrance of the character on the other side. Let him get half-way out of the frame. Pick him up on the third frame, walking in, and when we cut to the shot he’ll be in the same place and it will become a seamless cut.”
We’re doing seamless edits for storytelling purposes. But we also may want to do abrupt, obvious editing as well. Shock effects. Emotional dissonance. We’re constantly trying to elicit an emotion. We use any technique to elicit an emotion. How do we get an audience to cry? Maybe it’s cutting to a reaction shot of the people who are being affected by an action or a line of dialogue. Emotion is the key. As Sam Fuller said, “These are e-motion pictures.”
HULLFISH: E-motion pictures instead of motion pictures. I love that.
You mentioned Murch. You got to cut with him on The Wolfman.
GOLDBLATT: I was called in by the studio. Walter was hired by the director. They would take some things that I did for the cut and use them and other things they would discard. We were mutually respectful. We were both just trying to come up with fresh ideas to make the film play better.
HULLFISH: You work on some movies that are heavy on visual effects. What’s the role of sound effects in selling the reality of those movies? How much do you personally do with sound effects during the picture cut?
GOLDBLATT: You want to put in as many cool sound effects as possible because they work on an emotional and primal level. When you’re dealing with suspense and mystery, or with another world, it’s important to create an environmental audio atmosphere. I used to do a lot of that myself, as well as delegating it to my assistants. Often, there’s simply no time to hand it over to a music editor. You’ve got to have yesterday’s footage edited today. The director may walk into your editing room and want to see what the scene looks like. I’m obligated to cut the scene to the best of my ability, with full music and sound, as if it’s ready to shown in a theater to paying audiences.
HULLFISH: How did you make the transition from Moviola to NLE? When did that happen? Do you remember what film you were on?
GOLDBLATT: The first film on Avid was True Lies, a picture I edited with Conrad Buff. Richard Harris was going to join us later.
I did not know how to work an Avid at that point. I enrolled in a class. The last film I cut on film, I actually cut on a picture synchronizer, which is a device I’d learned on in film school back in London. They didn’t really use them in the United States. It was a device with two soundtracks synchronized to picture. You could run it with a little lever or at 24 frames per second and the film would just drop into the film bin.
HULLFISH: What things from editing on film did you carry with you? What are things you prefer about one over the other?
GOLDBLATT: Once I went digital, I never looked back, with one exception. I was obliged to return to celluloid for Showgirls because they’d wiped the drives of the movie and I needed to create a special version for Blockbuster Video that was closer to an R rated version, as opposed to the original NC-17 version of the film. I actually enjoyed the process, and editing on the KEM was a trip down memory lane. But random access and the freedom that digital editing provides trumps everything else. You can make myriad versions of a scene. You can do temp visual effects. Pretty darn good temp dubs. You can change the speed of a shot. You can blow things up, you can flip them. You can take elements of different takes and put them all in the same shot. It has opened up a never-ending palette of possibilities.
HULLFISH: Your last film was Death Wish with Bruce Willis. Did you ever try the technique of splitting a two shot to alter the timings or even use different performances on either side of the frame?
GOLDBLATT: Sure. I’ve done it on a 4 shot. You may want to have character 3’s performance from a different take than characters 1,2 and 4. It’s a little harder for a moving shot, but for a lock-down, we do it all the time.
HULLFISH: For me, another big difference between film and computer-based editing is the ability to revise. Back in the film days, if a director wanted to see a different version of a cut, it meant undoing all your work and not getting it back without a lot of effort.
GOLDBLATT: We used to make black and white dupes of the scene before we undid it all. That was the only way to have a record of the initial cut before you tore it apart.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about Death Wish and your work on that project since that was the most recent one. What in that movie did you find that you either had to change the structure of or that you felt like, “Let’s just manipulate time in a way that’s not the same as in the script?”
GOLDBLATT: Well, time is manipulated constantly in film. There’s realtime and there’s movie time. Structurally, it’s a lot like a classic western.
HULLFISH: I would love to hear some stories of specific scenes in your career that you remember cutting.
GOLDBLATT: One of my favorite scenes is from the first Terminator movie. Sarah Connor takes refuge in a discotheque. She knows she’s being followed. She knows a woman named Sarah Connor has been murdered. She knows her roommate isn’t answering the phone. She’s trapped in this discotheque. She’s been seeing this guy, Michael Biehn’s character, Kyle Reese, shadowing her. She’s phoned the police and they’re on their way.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the Terminator, has located Sarah Connor at the disco. Sarah’s at a table, and accidentally knocks over a beer bottle. She leans over to pick it up in slow motion. We see the Terminator just miss seeing her. We’re also watching Kyle Reese in the corner, watching everything. Three major characters all meet up at one point in time. Three different points of view. Plus a fourth point of view if you count the audience who knows everything that’s going on, though the characters don’t. The characters only know what they see, so we see each character’s point of view. All of this is getting closer and closer and closer to a collision. Finally, the Terminator character sees Sarah Connor.
Jim (director, James Cameron) shot everything in slow motion and in regular motion. We used the slow motion for Sarah as she gets into the discotheque, she’s called the police… she’s disoriented. She is out of her body in a sense. Everybody is dancing to the music in the disco. And then the music slows down. People are dancing in slow motion. Sarah’s looking around. The Terminator sees Sara, Kyle sees the Terminator going for his gun. He pulls his shotgun and starts to bolt it. Sarah goes down to pick up the beer bottle. Who will get their shot off first? Will Sarah sit up into the line of fire? All of this leads up to (spoiler alert) Kyle Reese shooting the Terminator. Then they’re both shooting at each other. Sarah’s running for shelter as people are getting annihilated left and right.
Also, the disco music has been overtaken by the score. The beat of the disco is still filtering through the score in the midst of the chaos. There’s this slow motion buildup into the explosion, chaos and chase scene. It’s just propelling the intensity of the movie more and more and more.
HULLFISH: Do you remember making the decisions about when you would go in and out of slow-motion?
GOLDBLATT: Yes. The thing that shocked us out of slow-motion was Kyle’s first shotgun blast at the Terminator. It was as if Sarah was in shock, but the gunfire woke her up. Kyle Reese is there, “Come with me if you want to live.” That’s in normal motion. Although it’s kind of slow-motion with Arnold reviving himself off the ground.
HULLFISH: You also had to make the decision when to come in and out of the score from the disco music.
GOLDBLATT: Yes. Well there’s a point at which they’re kind of 50/50. The score and the disco music are kind of playing off one another, creating a great tension, then, when they’re off and running, we’re fully into score. It was a non-intellectual process. Most of this, I cut MOS (without sound). I do that a lot.
That goes back to the question you asked an hour ago: “What do I do to maintain objectivity?” That’s part of my overlying belief that a movie should tell the story visually. Sound is crucial, but it has to work on a purely visual level. The oppositional moments between two characters have to be clear visually, even if you can’t understand what they’re saying.
HULLFISH: To go back to another conversation, did you stand while you were cutting Death Wish?
GOLDBLATT: Yeah I got one of those hydraulic tables. I’d stand until I got tired, and then I’d either raise the chair or lower the table. Variety is good.
HULLFISH: Yvonne, Tell me about how you’d prepare scenes for Mark since you said you’ve been doing this for 14 years for him. How does he like his bins laid out? Has his idea changed over the years in how to organize a scene bin?
VALDEZ: No. He’s been pretty much steadfast. He’s a creature of habit, which I appreciate. I managed to kind of mold him a little bit into my direction for simplicity, but ultimately he’s the editor and I do it his way.
Generally, I would go through the dailies. Look at the line script and I would put it pretty much wide to tight. I’d start with masters. I arrange it by story. Basically if setup D came before setup A in the script then I would put D after the master. I generally lined up the master first. Then whatever coverage followed next, no matter what the set up was, I would put it in that order, so he could pull all of the selects in the order that the scene was meant to play out.
HULLFISH: Mark, tell me about how you view dailies. Are you actively watching? Making notes? Starting to construct an idea of the scene even if you’re not starting to piece it together on the timeline?
GOLDBLATT: All of the above. I view them on the Avid, on the big client monitor. I use the script notes as well just so I get the immediate feedback of whatever the director may have said, so that I understand the technical issues: maybe that they changed the lighting in take 6, for example. I want all of the intelligence about why one take is printed and another take is selected as well. Then there are my own fresh observations. I want the best performance. I want the best camera move. I want the best choreography. I want those magical moments.
I take notes, then I go through the material again, and make some decisions about what line readings and what parts of takes I want to use. As I’m doing that, I try to envision what my structure is going to be. Will I start on an extreme close-up? Am I going to pre-lap a line of dialogue? Will I come in to a tight shot of a hand hitting a desk? I’ll figure out what the transition is into the scene and then where do I go from there.
VALDEZ: After just skimming through the dailies, once he was ready to start cutting, I was in the room with him, with the lined script right next to me and we would go through everything and examine everything including the selects that were marked by the director. He was very conscious of what the director wanted. And I usually touch base with the script supervisor to let her know that, so that she could give us any side notes if possible.
HULLFISH: It’s awesome that you’re in the room as he’s cutting. What have you learned from that?
VALDEZ: Basically I watched him examine every kernel. He mentally noted looks from the actor even if they seemed insignificant he noted it with a locator or something saying he liked it. Or he’d ask me to jot that down for him. But what I loved the most was going through the dailies with him and him just saying what he’s looking for and why he’s looking for it. I think it was sort of a way for him to examine the footage and remember it by telling me. For me it was seeing what he is seeing. Why he’s looking at it for that. How he interpreted that scene playing out. I was fortunate to work with him for so many years, and he wants you in the room with him, which is great. You learn so much about how to work with directors, how to get your point across without being rude.
HULLFISH: What did you learn about how he interacts with different directors and kind of the politics of that?
VALDEZ: I think mostly to respect who they are in the hierarchy. Also to know that they’re artists and to speak to them in that way. With Mark being much older than Eli Roth in the case of Death Wish, don’t be condescending or a know-it-all. Speak to them as a peer. You never make it sound like your idea is better than theirs, but your idea is just something different that we ought to try. Ultimately, it’s not my movie, it’s not my choice. I just want to make it as good as possible. I think if the director understands that then they don’t worry and they are much more comfortable working with you and asking you your opinion, and genuinely wanting your opinion. That’s I think what you get out of that situation: if you’re respectful then they’ll be respectful back.
When I first started working with Mark and he started asking me my opinion you wonder how far you can go with that. What I learned over the years was that if he didn’t want your opinion he wouldn’t ask. You have to give him the opinion because he’s asking. Don’t say something that you think he wants to hear because then he’ll never ask your opinion again.
One of the best things that Mark ever opened my eyes to was to allow me to be in the room with him. My first few years as an assistant with other editors, I never got that chance. When he gave me that opportunity I just became a sponge and just watched and learned.
HULLFISH: Thank you both so much for talking to me I really appreciate it. I loved all of your wisdom and film history.
GOLDBLATT: Nice talking to you too. Bye.
VALDEZ: Thanks for including Mark in Art of the Cut. He’s been a fantastic teacher to me. I’m glad you can share some of his wisdom with your readers.
The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.