#1 in a Series

Robert Wise And
Donn Cambern
Ignite "Fireside Chat"

by Mark Phillips

Listen to the Seminar

Although no fireplace was evident at the Directors Guild, venerable director Robert Wise and Editors Guild President Donn Cambern managed to warm the audience who attended the first of the Guild's new Fireside Chat series.

The evening opened with Guild Board member Sharon Smith Holley welcoming the audience and introducing a tribute videotape made when the AFI recently presented Robert Wise with a Lifetime Achievement Award. When the narrator described a wide-eyed 19-year-old Wise in Hollywood asking "What kind of job do you get with no experience?" the audience jokingly responded, "Film editing!"

A Humanistic Thread

As an additional visual reminder of the great images Wise has given us, moderator Karen Rasch introduced a tape of notable scenes from his films, culled by Fred Toye and Alan Monroe. In his 83 years Wise has directed 39 films, earning him numerous nominations and awards, including Oscars for the timeless favorites 'West Side Story' and 'The Sound Of Music'. Given his many successes, Wise has always remained a modest individual whose non-effusive nature lends itself to the humanistic thread that runs through his diverse range of films.

Wise humbly began his career by working for several months in film shipping at RKO and then moved up to apprentice in the studio's sound & music editing department. He spent a couple of years honing his craft until his creative urges guided him into picture editing.

Wise was assigned to take
over cutting for a new
director - Orson Welles.
The film was
"Citizen Kane"

RKO rewarded the young Wise by making him William Hamilton's assistant. As was due course in the studio system, Wise eventually graduated to editor and was assisted by Mark Robson. Because he exhibited substantial talent, Wise was assigned to take over cutting a film for a new director who was unhappy with his editor. The director was Orson Welles and the film was 'Citizen Kane'. Wise soon realized that he was cutting more than just an average film. Surprisingly, Welles was not constantly lording over Wise dictating every cut; Wise was allowed to cut a scene the way he saw fit and Welles would form his vision after he viewed Wise's. With cautious humility, Wise credited the success of 'Kane' to Welles: "That was his baby."

One of the clips that the audience viewed was from 'Kane', depicting the deterioration of his marriage to his first wife. Wise commented that the conception of the scene was Welles', but the impeccable rhythm was created in the cutting room. He and his assistant returned to the sequence many times until the speed and placement of the whip pans and the dialogue meshed. Donn Cambern pointed out the tremendous amount of work within this scene and how the whip pans gave drive not only to this scene but to the entire film. "With today's schedules there simply isn't as much time to go back into a scene like there was 50 years ago. There was a willingness to return to a scene to refine and perfect it," said Donn.

Wise edited several more features even though his interest in stepping behind the camera had been piqued by his experience on 'The Magnificent Ambersons'. While editing 'Curse of the Cat People' the original director was let go and Wise was asked to take over directing. In 1975 Wise directed 'The Hindenburg' and hired Donn Cambern as his film editor.

Donn Cambern, who began his career as a music editor, enthusiastically discussed his experiences working on 'The Hindenburg'. He described how the climax of this film proved to be particularly challenging editorially because the tragedy lasted only 37 seconds in actuality while the film sequence stretched time to about 10 minutes. Donn recounted how he and his assistant, Todd Ramsay, utilized the sparse black and white newsreel footage by doing 400% "blow-ins" and freezing particular frames where Wise would go in, expand time, and examine various characters' action. Additionally, Universal would not allow Wise to shoot in black and white, so Pacific Title suggested using a particular film stock while creating the opticals for the end sequence that truly resulted in a black and white print which also matched the newsreel footage in grain structure. Upon completion, this scene contained 722 opticals!

Why Don't We Just Try It

Donn described the occasion of running his assembly of 'The Hindenburg' for Wise: "You can imagine I was kind of nervous running a first cut for Bob Wise. The lights went down and we started to run. We were about two minutes into the film when Bob reached over and patted me quietly on the back, which helped me to relax. This was the kind of gesture that helped me enormously."

While in the cutting room one day, Donn was running a sequence when Wise suggested something different he wanted to try: "I Intellectualized for five minutes on how what he wanted to do wouldn't work. Bob just quietly listened to me and after I was through he said: 'Well, why don't we just try it.' Grumbling a bit, I cut the scene as Bob had suggested and it worked-far better than what I had done! Bob never said anything about it. What I learned was that the film speaks for itself. You can spend hours intellectualizing or just try it. If it doesn't work, you'll know immediately. It was probably one of the greatest editing lessons I had in my life.."

The audience was then invited to ask questions of Donn and Robert. One member observed that it seemed easier to make the jump from editor to director in Wise's era. Wise pointed out, "Back then the major studios were making sixty features a year, so there were more opportunities to step in."

Wise addressed a question concerning the most and least challenging aspects of directing having come from an editing background: "Directing the actors and getting the performance I wanted was the biggest challenge because I was used to working with them only on celluloid. Getting the proper coverage was easiest. There is a misconception that having been an editor you would shoot less coverage. It's not true! You shoot more because you know how useful the footage is."

Constructive Criticism

'The Hindenburg' had all the coverage that was really needed," attested Donn. Fielding a question regarding what he felt was constructive criticism within the editor/director relationship, Donn said, "The dailies are really the point of discussion. If something occurs to you after viewing them, hopefully your director is open to your suggesting another angle or whatever because we all understand that the loneliest place is when you are in the editing room and you are looking for something that you could have gotten but didn't." Donn continued, "The best editors I know understand very well the politics of the editing room and what their role is and don't have any pretensions about it. It is a collaboration and, ideally, a healthy one."

When asked what aspect of directing gave Wise the most pleasure he said that all facets were enjoyable, but conceded that post-production was particularly gratifying. "I loved editing... I told my wife I'd rather be an editor on a top-quality picture than grind out routine shows as a director."

At the evening's close Wise posed a question to the audience: "Occasionally, I will see a movie cut by multiple editors. How does this work?" Donn responded that this situation is brought about by the compression in post production time, but that sometimes the collaboration can be good. "Seems strange to me," concluded Mr. Wise.

Mark Phillips is a first assistant editor
currently working on 'The Other Sister', a Touchstone feature.

Reprinted from
The Motion Picture Editors Guild Newsletter
Vol. 19, No. 3 - May/June 1998

Guild Home | Newsletter Home | Top of Page

Copyright © 1998, All Rights Reserved by The Motion Picture Editors Guild, IATSE Local 776