Paul Hirsch: Master Editor in Profile
His innovative cutting room craft defined the modern blockbuster. From STAR WARS to MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE, Paul Hirsch’s work is a model of excellence in editing. Crossing genres, spanning decades, ever evolving, always compelling.
I had the privilege and honour of speaking to the man himself.
I never really understood the phrase ‘scholar and gentleman’. Until I spoke to Paul Hirsch. He is both custodian of the lost arts and sciences of motion pictures and adaptable force in the new digital landscape.
There is a civil, decent idealism to his every comment; always qualifying any criticism of others with some balanced, redemptive hope.
Paul has been at the front line of blockbuster film-making: Star Wars, Mission Impossible; and is equally at home with smaller, more intimate drama and comedy projects (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Steel Magnolias).
He clearly adores his wife and family (I point out that fact and he lights up with a warm smile) and at the same time is very free and creative in discussions of beauty, aesthetics and morality.
Like any good teacher, he knows how to simply cue you to a stop, via strategic drop of eyelid or raising a friendly smile.
I was motivated to contact Paul after reading his new book:
‘A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away: My Fifty Years Editing Hollywood Hits; Star Wars, Carrie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Mission: Impossible, and More’.
It is a comprehensive, accessible, and substantial read.
We start the chat with the craft of editing and what it means. Is it in any way a less physically demanding process, now? There is no movement of negatives, spools, reels, surely?
Paul is quick to correct me on that. Yes, it’s true that some of the slog of moving film is much reduced by the digital image. But it has, conversely, allowed for even more complex attention to detail.
More than ever before, there is a pressure on the cutting room to bring together potentially disparate pieces of footage and reconcile multiple takes.
It is no accident that Paul (along with other names such as Stuart Baird and Christian Wagner) are brought on as much needed fixers on troubled projects.
He is very hands on, attending sets, in constant conversation with the directors and producers, whilst calmly and carefully carving out his own freedoms as a craftsman.
I say ‘craftsman’. I stumble on that word, amending carefully to ‘crafts-person’, just in case Mr Hirsch has the Hollywood sensitivity to such things.
He smiles at my hesitation; assuring me not to worry, though he welcomes the gentlemanly care for language, stopping short of any inane political correctness.
Yes, he is pleased that workplaces are now safer and clearer in codes, especially as he is a proud father to a son and daughter who now continue his legacy in film.
His son, Eric is a post-production sound mixer. And his daughter, Gina is an editor. Once again, the warmth is palpable, as is the sense of pastoral concern. But so, it seems, is a sense of balance and moderation.
We simply cannot, definitively, dispense with the descriptors of gender. Paul agrees it is indeed a subtle but sure tight-rope.
‘No director can view their work through a purely ‘male’ or ‘female’ idiom: the best artists, be they men or women directors, manage to tell human stories for all’.
Paul then qualifies his comment with a regret that there could and should be more women directors that come to mind. I cite Kathryn Bigelow. Paul points out that Kathryn understands how to appeal to and shoot and cut for both male and female audiences: ‘It’s one of the keys to success’.
IE: Bigelow is a director rather than just a ‘woman, director’. Lots of guns, explosions, kick ass mentality fused to uniquely concerned political morality. Echoes of her once partner, James Cameron?
In any event, Bigelow has a discernible, visual style. Paul has not yet worked with her. But it would be a fascinating collaboration.
Whatever way one looks at Paul’s work, there is a clearly compassionate decency underlying his ethic. He turned down a number of movies that had a questionable set of values or excessive violence that did not serve story utility.
So, in context: there is a long-standing collaboration with Brian DePalma. Their film, Carrie works, in part, because the violence is an expression of story.
The film is shot and indeed edited (via Mr Hirsch) in such a way that there is no excessive brutality, without ever shunning the shock or horror or thriller factors needed to sustain story.
By contrast, Paul decided against cutting Scarface. He enjoyed the picture, but did not wish to be trapped in the editing room with scenes of death by chainsaw.
‘Sometimes, one simply is not available to cut a picture; schedules clash. But you want variety in work, and just like an actor who collaborates with a director consistently, it’s important to do other projects, too’.
Certain directors (Spielberg, Scorsese) stick to one editor on all their films wherever possible. And Paul clearly loves their work. Indeed, he was a part, arguably, of the initial ‘Movie Brat’ pack:
Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, DePalma (and Scorsese, as Paul corrects my omission!).
Was he their in house editor? Sharing his craft with a rock star esque group of young pretenders to the throne of Cinema in the 1970s.
‘Well we never really saw it that way, I think. For me, it was about trying to stay in interesting work, whilst honing my craft and forging a living and career, bringing up a young family with my wife. Terms like ‘Movie Brats’ or whatever are neither insult nor compliment; they’re just irrelevant to the work’.
It’s a similarly casual yet still purposeful approach taken, once again, by many an actor with counterpart success in their field. Paul has edited Harrison Ford as Han Solo, twice. Star Wars: A New Hope/Episode 4 and The Empire Strikes Back are definitive action/adventure space fantasies.
But they are made so, in large part, due to the actors, such as Ford as Solo.
One cannot edit star power into a film; it is a palpable yet impossible charisma, an X Factor of likability and professional clarity; a distinctive personality fused to versatility.
He knew, immediately that Charlize Theron had ‘it’ when he edited her on Mighty Joe Young. ‘Breath-taking beauty, hard working, gifted, a great actress’.
And he was delighted to see Brad Pitt win an Oscar at last this year
‘Long overdue, so glad Brad won; Great actor and a star from day one. I recommended him to Adrian Lyne for Indecent Proposal, though they cast Woody Harrelson’.
Hirsch agrees that Harrison Ford has that same yet elusive though palpable star quality. I point out what a tragedy it is therefore that the Indiana Jones 5 project has been repeatedly delayed and has now lost Spielberg as director.
‘Sure, but I remember Steven speaking to me just before he did the first ‘Raiders’ picture. He had planned everything, meticulously. He had lived the movie before shooting a single frame. And he applied that same ethic to the other films in that series. So, for whatever reason, it could well be that he is very involved with Part 5 but simply cannot invest that kind of attention on every frame when he has other projects on the go.’
That’s as close to gossip as you will get from Mr Hirsch. Discretion is one of the man’s virtues. His book is unflattering of Joel Schumacher from the set of 1993’s Falling Down.
But he will not condemn Joel the man or the work; noting how effective one scene is in particular. Michael Douglas’ ‘D Fens’ murders a white supremacist homophobe.
Paul notes the nastiness of the character who gets bumped off and the horrors of his language. But he’s just as moved by the fact that murder is the moral point of no return for Douglas’ character. It’s an extraordinary case study in film. Watch it. Immediately, dear reader.
At the same time, however, Paul will express genuine shock and surprise and interest if you drop a revelation into the chat.
I hint that Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (which Paul edited, returning after the first movie and having missed parts 2 and 3) was intended, initially, as a swansong for Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character: nudging him away from the franchise he had built.
Cruise brought in Christopher McQuarrie as a script Doctor, thereby crafting a movie that retained a team ethic in its heroics, whilst avoiding premature torch passing. ‘I did not know that’, says Paul.
He seems genuinely hurt by the notion that Paramount would be so myopic in their treatment of Mr Cruise.
The story is of course, just that: a story. It’s not libelous, because it’s simply a creative speculation rather than accusation against the studio or star. Hirsch will not indulge such speculation directly.
Yet his protective, proactive respect for Cruise is clear.
‘Tom knows EVERY aspect of a film set. On The Mummy, he was able to cite, precisely, where a camera ought to go in order to maximise a visual impact. Yet he never tries all out take over directing of a film officially’.
Even Cruise’s acting or Paul’s editing could not save 2017’s The Mummy from being slightly overpowered by its own franchise ambitions. Hirsch is delighted to learn that Universal Pictures learned its lesson, the ‘Dark Universe’ initiative now replaced by a less ambitious in scale but more
organic in development series of self-contained genre horror pictures.
I urge him to see The Invisible Man: currently clearing up at the Box Office. Editing is key to its clarity. But what DOES make a franchise /series successful?
Surely Paul must know.
‘It helps to not define the film as part of some ‘universe’. Look back to Star Wars. George of course told me he had plans for more movies in the series. But that first movie stands alone, in itself. It IS cinema, as some have said. And I prefer it to Empire Strikes Back, despite the entire world thinking that the ‘darker’ second chapter is always better’.
I put it to him that a balance between light and dark is key, so?
‘Sure. Empire Strikes Back is dark, literally, in its look, feel, story. But it’s also very funny’.
I refer again, as well, to the Mission: Impossible series. They go dark, but never TOO dark, though part 3 and FALLOUT are quite brutal in places ‘I enjoyed Fallout’, he assures me.
That first film from 1996 though, is perfection.
It has violence and darkness, but off camera / in well-choreographed shots. ‘Dark’ twists launch what is essentially a labyrinthine murder mystery, globe-trotting plot and feel good fun blockbuster.
All the intrigue and pace of a 007 film via Cruise star power and DePalma at his Hitchcockian best. Paul’s edit is key there, pushing pace but respecting the complexity that Tom and Brian were pushing too.
One of my all time favourites. And due in large part to great editing from Mr. Hirsch.
Paul laughs when I confess to playing the movie on repeat, frequently, to time / pace more mundane chores. The movie has an uplift to it. I don’t view it as ‘gritty’.
The editor understands the balance:
‘You go ‘dark’ when you need to. Empire Strikes Back is clearly the middle part of a three act play of sorts, so it makes sense to raise the stakes. But there is no virtue in making something grim for its own sake or to copy another film or sequel.’
Speaking of sequels, is it true that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off almost had its very own ‘Ferris 2’? Before the sad death of John Hughes (writer/director), there was some talk of more. Bueller, stressed executive, takes a day out from the Office?
Paul edited the original comedy masterpiece to perfection and had a vital say on the integration of music and visual cues, every bit as much as he did on Star Wars.
The artwork montage in the gallery is as much his work as editor as it is Hughes’ as writer/director. Surely he’s curious about Ferris’ sequel possibilities?
‘There was nothing official. But you could never really tell with John Hughes. We did two pictures together: Ferris and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. He was a genius. But also a complex man. Maybe there were some tentative talks about Ferris 2 but that’s as far as it went, I think’.
There are plenty of other projects waiting for Paul. I ask if he has any preferences.
‘I will consider anything. I’m a working editor! Anything with a good story, team and purpose. And the pay is nice, too, but it’s not the only reason to work’.
I for one, cannot wait to see the next great work of cinema from one of its most gifted editors in Paul Hirsch. It was a real / ‘reel’ privilege and honour talking to him.
‘A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away: My Fifty Years Editing Hollywood Hits; Star Wars, Carrie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Mission: Impossible, and More’ is now available in print and Audible formats. Essential Reading.