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The Deep Dive: Dropping Names and Telling Tales

 

After growing up in Cleveland, Ohio to European immigrant parents and having gone to film school at Ohio University, I came to Los Angeles in October of 1977 with hopes of getting into the film business.

 

Little did I realize at the time how much my first job would impact not only my own career, but be instrumental in shaping a whole new genre.

  

One of the first people making music videos in the US was producer Jerry Kramer who also gave me my first job in February of 1978. After originally hiring me as a runner, he quickly started giving me opportunities to do some editing when he saw that I had a knack for cutting pictures to music which, perhaps not surprisingly, was greatly influenced by my 14 years of classical piano training. We were making clips for ELO, Styx, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Donna Summer, The Brothers Johnson, and Chic among many others, years before MTV came on the scene.

 

Wanting to expand and grow my filmmaking experience, I took a break from the music video scene in 1981 to work on a film about the Holocaust for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Genocide, which wound up winning an Oscar for Best Feature Documentary in 1982. My relationship with the Center also included participating in the videotaping of personal stories of still-living Holocaust survivors before Steven Spielberg eventually took over the project and created the Shoah Foundation.

In 1983, I cut an independent feature based on a John Gardner novel, Nickel Mountain that starred Mod Squad alumnus Michael Cole, and future Nightmare On Elm Street scream queen Heather Langencamp. What’s notable about this is that it’s where I first met recent AFI graduates Steve Golin and Joni Sighvatsson who would a few years later provide the financial footing and business leadership for Propaganda Films. More on that later.

 

By 1984, I had returned to cutting music videos for Stevie Wonder, The Pointer Sisters, Kim Carnes, Peter Wolf, Mr. Mister, Morris Day, Brian Setzer, The Gap Band, Thelma Houston, as well as a duet between Rick James and Smokey Robinson. It was a major career boost for me and a number of colleagues at the time to be discovered and championed by the inimitable Beth Broday who is really the godmother of music videos in this country. I also worked with Cheech and Chong, but that’s another story. ;-))

 

Concurrently, I was cutting movie trailers for the Indy film studio Cannon Films who were riding a wave of Chuck Norris movies and break dancing with the movie Breakin’. After working on a trailer with John Cassavetes on what was to be his final film, Love Streams (which Cannon produced in an effort establish credibility as a high end studio), I wound up being one of the editors on the sequel to Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, where the mandate was to make it look as much like a music video as possible. The lead editor told me about a screening of the climactic dance sequence where I had made a series of one frame edits that caused the studio head, Menahem Golan, to jump out of his seat proclaiming, “That’s what we need here ... more modern editing!”

 

In 1986, a group of colleagues founded what became powerhouse production company Propaganda Films that launched the careers of directors David Fincher, Michael Bay, Spike Jonze, Dominic Sena, Nigel Dick, Alex Proyas, Mark Romanek, and Antoine Fuqua among many others. Most of us had known each other from the early music video days, but being at Propaganda took everything to a much higher level. I cut videos for Madonna, Sting, Janet Jackson, Prince, David Bowie, Bob Seger, Steve Miller, Richard Marx, Fleetwood Mac, En Vogue, Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Cyndi Lauper among many others. 

 

Along the way, I also cut what is still considered the sexiest music video ever made, Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” which was directed by world renowned fashion photographer Herb Ritts. 

 

During this period of explosive creativity, I met a director/producer team whose wheelhouse was very different than the one I was usually working in. Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith had a production company that was well known for producing large-scale network television specials and concerts. They had done shows for Paul McCartney, Elvis, Bette Midler, and Frank Sinatra as well as The Bicentennial Celebration from Ellis Island and inaugural galas for Reagan and Clinton. 

 

I re-cut a number from a Neil Diamond special that they had produced at the request of the record company to make it more “MTV friendly.” Neil literally said to me that he’d never seen a musical number cut like I did before, and Dwight and Gary liked it because it made Neil look a lot hipper than his formidable, but mainstream reputation. After that, Dwight hired me to cut part of a Christmas Special he was directing for Julie Andrews which netted me and the other two editors on the show an Emmy for Best Editing For A Mini Series or Special.  

 

Dwight and Gary later introduced me to Barbra Streisand for whom I cut the opening (featuring Robin Williams) for the concert at her Malibu home, One Voice, which was the first time she had sung in public in many years.  I would go to another house she owned on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills every night for a week or so to show her what I had been working on during the day and to get her feedback and input.

 

A few years later, I met David Lynch when I cut a concert film for Julee Cruise that he had staged and filmed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. We had a good rapport, and I became David’s commercial editor for several years. We made spots for Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album as well as a moody and evocative black and white spot for Armani Cologne.  

 

Around this time, David introduced me to his writing partner on Twin Peaks, Mark Frost, who was heading up an experimental documentary series for Fox Television called American Chronicles. I was again nominated for an Emmy for cutting the pilot and acted as Senior Editor and Associate Producer for the series. At the same time, Twin Peaks was hitting the airwaves, and Mark and David would pull me aside from American Chronicles to cut the recaps and previews for Twin Peaks since David felt I had a particular knack for compressing a lot of information into 30 seconds. I think the idea of recaps and previews (“Last week on Twin Peaks ... / Next week on Twin Peaks ...”) may have originated with that show to help people navigate the twists and turns of the extended narrative, a practice that has now become commonplace.

 

American Chronicles was a documentary show that looked at American institutions and events from an impressionistic viewpoint. As part of my experience there, I pitched an idea and got to direct an episode in 1990 that looked at the fashion industry at a time well before there was as much focus on designers, their collections and behind the scenes reporting as there is now. I interviewed Geoffrey Bean, Mark Jacobs, Isaac Mizrahi, and Betsy Johnson among others and created a comprehensive portrait of an industry dedicated to creating personal style.

 

Also in the early 90’s, I started what was to become a long running relationship with Michael Jackson. I first met him when I wound up taking over a project that had been started by Mark Romanek to highlight Michael’s career before the release of his Dangerous album. Mark’s idea had been to create a historical retrospective of Michael’s career set to classical music instead of his own hits to emphasize his “classic” status.  

 

We were experimenting with different tracks when Mark exited the project for scheduling reasons and Michael asked me to take over. I chose “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, which, as it turned out, Michael had never heard before. After I showed him the first cut late at night in a recording studio in LA where he was still working on the album, he looked at me slyly and said, “Oh, I see you’re trying to hurt me!” At first I was a little taken aback, but Michael’s long time videographer, Joe Wilcots, who was the only other person in the room with us, quickly explained that it was a phrase that he and Quincy Jones had used during the making of Thriller as a challenge to really impress each other: “I want you to really hurt me this time!”  

 

Michael loved the piece I made for him so much that he eventually used it as the opening to his European Tour, his Live In Bucharest concert film, and included it in two compilations of music videos under the title “Brace Yourself.” I worked on a number of projects for him after that right up until his untimely passing in 2009. He often told me that “Brace Yourself” was his favorite promo from his long and exceptional career.

 

My next project for Michael was his Live in Bucharest concert film. It was a massive undertaking as I had only 10 days to edit the concert from when it was shot to when it was scheduled to air on HBO, and Michael wanted me to include a number of visual elements that he had pulled form his extensive archive. I set up shop in New York at a small video house and promptly started working around the clock to get the best out of the material. Because of the scale and length of the show, I eventually wound up hiring several more editors who worked under my supervision as well as several other artists who dealt with graphics and special effects.

I had expected Michael to show up at some point to see how the show was coming together, but his videographer (the aforementioned Joe Wilcots) was the only representative from Michael’s camp that I ever saw. Eventually I figured out that based on Joe’s reports, Michael trusted what I was doing and didn’t feel the need to check in personally. I did speak to him on the phone a number of times, though, and at one point late in the week he said the magic words to me that most professionals can only dream of hearing: He said, “I don’t care how much money you spend, and don’t let anyone else tell you what to do.”  

 

I think by the time we delivered the show to HBO, a mere 12 hours before it was on the air (which would be unheard of for anyone other than Michael Jackson), I had been up for close to 3 days straight. It was a memorable project that I am proud to have been a part of as it was designed to benefit the Romanian orphanages that Michael had taken a particular interest in helping out.

 

My last connection with Michael was a few months before he died. I got a call from a woman who worked for AEG, the concert promoter, who told me that they had started making promos to advertise the concerts he was rehearsing for, and that Michael wasn’t happy with them. He had simply said to her, “Find Bob Jenkis.” She consequently tracked me down and after reviewing the spots they had cut, I advised her on how I thought they should be changed to meet Michael’s wishes. She did, and told me later that Michael had been pleased with the changes and approved the campaign. RIP, Michael.

 

As I developed a reputation as an editor in music videos, I was often asked to share some of my experiences with students in University classes. Professor Alan Bloom at Cal State LA had recognized the artistry of music videos early on and often featured people who made them in his classes. I developed a lecture about the power of editing from several videos where I had been brought in to re-edit clips where either the record company or the artist wasn’t happy with what had been done up until that point. It gave me the opportunity to show the cuts side by side which is a rare experience for people not intimately involved in the process, but can be highly informative as to how significant particular changes can be in terms of how a video is perceived.  

 

I was also able to reconnect with a favorite professor who had been one of my teachers while I was in film school in Ohio. Professor Peter Lehman is now the Director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture at Arizona State University, where I have had the pleasure of sharing stories and experiences with both students and patrons. I have been honored by being named Visiting Scholar at the Center, as well as Distinguished Fellow in Film and Video Editing.

 

My next foray as an editor was into the advertising world. In the early music video days, the ad world was very closed off to us music video makers. But that changed when corporations and clients started requesting that their ads start having that ”music video look.” David Fincher opened the door for many of us when he made a commercial for Colt 45 starring Billy Dee Williams in the late 80s. Suddenly music video directors were in vogue, and because so much of the ”music video look” depended on the editing style, the directors insisted on bringing us editors along. I had always had a reputation for being able to take the ball and run with it, so I quickly started working on ads for big clients such as Nike, Visa, Coke, Sprite, Mountain Dew, Jeep, Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Cadillac, Lincoln, Mitsubishi, Gatorade, Heineken, and Panasonic, among many others.

 

I twice won a Gold Clio for Editing: One for a Start Credit Card spot, and another for a Rollerblade spot. Many other spots I worked on also won awards in other categories. A favorite award (also for editing) was for a Visa spot for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, which is now part of the permanent collection of Film and Video in the Museum of Modern Art.

 

In more recent years as completely digital workflows have become established, I have travelled all over the world to work on projects. Have laptop, will travel. I have both shot 2nd unit on spots as well as cut them in hotel rooms in New Zealand, Indonesia, Australia, India, and Germany. I have worked with highly skilled and talented artists and crafts people in all of those places, and look forward to opportunities where I can share their expertise with clients from other parts of the world.

 

My newest venture as an advisor, consultant and facilitator is designed to share my wide-ranging expertise and experience with clients all over the world who are looking for creative input, the best talent, and the most cost effective ways to successfully complete their projects.