In the late 90s, I had the opportunity to meet with Oscar winner Jim Clarke in Pinewood studios where he was editing the Bond-film “The World is not enough“. Jim died on February 25, 2016.
Jim won an Oscar for his work on ‘Killing Fields’, worked on legendary films like ‘Lady Killers’ and Schlesingers ‘Midnight Cowboy’. He was Vice President of Paramount Picture and started his career in Ealing Studios.
The interview offers rare insight into the career of an award-winning editor. Jim talks about his experience working with directors like Schlesinger, how he discovered his passion for film and gives advice to newcomers who want to become editors.
Did it change your life when you got the Oscar on ‘Killing Fields’
No, not at all. I was more surprised than anybody. The night before the Oscars the American cinema editors have their own annual award ceremony. And I was nominated for that. I was absolutely terrified of winning.
I kept saying to my daughter who was with me ‘god I hope I don’t have to get up there. I really feel so nervous about this’. And then they announced ‘Amadeus’ the ace-award.
I was leaving the evening and Michael Caan who is a brilliant American film editor came up to me and said ‘you are going to get the Oscar’. And I replied ‘ No, I am not, the ace-award always is the same as the edit-award.’ But he said that it had happened to him with ‘Close Encounter of the Third Kind’.
So I went back to where I was sitting and told my daughter I’ve got to rehearse some speech, just in case. ‘But don’t worry’, I said, ‘it’s not going to happen’. So we sat there on Oscar night and then they announced my name and of course
I am sitting next to the Amadeus people who were absolutely sure that they were going to get the Oscar. I had to get up and I don’t really remember much about that.
Did somebody tape it for you?
Yes, and I totally forgot what I had rehearsed and managed to remember to thank everybody with the exception of my assistant, who was absolutely incensed and quite rightly. After that, it was great fun, because I had no idea of what went on after you win. You get whisked back, all sorts of things happen behind the scenes, and then you go off to the ball. It was really great fun.
Professionally it makes no difference. It doesn’t bump up your pay cheque. But I really think that the director also should receive an Oscar if the editor gets one, after all, he supplies the material. It is a very close relationship and I think the Oscar committee has their rules wrong.
The editor cannot do it on his own, it is a collaborative thing. The director and I struggled with ‘Killing Fields’ for month. In my career it was probably the most interesting film to work on, it underwent many changes and went through many surprises. It was not necessarily destined to be commercial and I do not think that many of us quite realised how important that film was at that time.
The preview of ‘Killing Fields’ was a disaster. It took place in Wimbledon and everyone walked out. Nobody could figure out what was happening. And we went through quite a lot of this sort of thing. ‘Killing Fields’ is a good example of a film which finds the balance between art and commerce.
And these kind of films are becoming rarer. I also think that these big budget films will never leave us, but they also had an awful lot of high-budget films flopping this year costing an awful lot of money. A lot of heads have fallen because of these mistakes.
Is it as political over here as it is in the USA
No. But we are very much governed by America. And I love working in New York. It’s closer to home, it’s a great place for filmmaking, everything is very central. I have done several films over there, and the first one was ‘Midnight Cowboy’ actually.
And that film is also a good example of how things have changed. ‘Midnight Cowboy’ was never previewed, went way over budget, costing United Artist a fortune, and Schlesinger did not want to preview the movie. It was a very dubious subject matter, and they were all terribly worried when I joined them because I wasn’t the original editor. John asked me to come over and have a look at the project.
So I looked at it and said, it is a great film, but it does have a problem with the first two reels. So he asked me to fix it. I was there for three months, fixing. And although he never had a preview or was forced into it by United Artists who knew they had this problem film, Schlesinger finally said, “right, we will show it to the bosses at UA, but it has to be the theatre of our choice, at the time we want it, and they are not allowed to bring any body with them except their secretaries.”
That was the edict. So we went into a theatre in New York at 10.30 on a Friday morning and all these suited gents filed in, knowing that this movie had cost them an awful lot of money and that it was a problem film. They all sat down and they were all absolutely silent, completely silent and then we looked at these guys and a lot of them were in tears! The girls were weeping, and that was when we knew we had a great movie.
Do you choose the directors you work with?
I haven’t really worked with that many directors. Stanley Donen chose me initially because I happened to be there, that was luck. Jack Clayton chose me because I was recommended to him by Jack Harris. John Schlesinger interviewed me over lunch, then I did not hear from him for weeks but then I did get the job.
I also worked for David Putnam to cut ‘Memphis Belle’. I worked for David Putnam for a long time and then went to America with him. That in itself was a long period of working for a producer who simply told the director that I would be cutting their films.
They had no choice. I first cut for Michael Apten, who is directing this Bond-movie, under David Putnam, cutting ‘Agatha’ for him. Then I cut ‘Nell’ for him with Jodie Foster. Directors really like to work for people they know and they can rely on.
How did you become and editor?
I have been around in cutting rooms for a long time. I cut my first film as an editor in 1960 when I was 26. So I started young in that respect. But I came into the business in 1951, working at the old Ealing studios with Sir Michael Balkan making the still famous Ealing comedies.
I was taken on as a trainee, but how I got to be there, which probably would interest you the most, is simply a question of luck and a question of being at the right place at the right time. And of course, having the ambition of wanting to be there in the first place. The reason I went to Ealing studios is that I was living there, coming originally from Lincolnshire where I was brought up, not intending to be in the film industry at all but supposed to be going into the printing business, which was a family concern.
But they made the mistake of sending me to London when I was eighteen to study at the London School of Printing, which was not the most exciting thing for me to do. But I had an interest in film from a very early age and had already involved myself in film societies which in those days were quite a big thing. I started two of those, one at my public school and one in my home town and therefore was in touch with the British Film Institute and with all the people that were involved at the time.
While studying at the School of printing in London I was moonlighting quite frequently at the National Film Theatre and the British Film Institute, so one thing led to another, in as much as I got more involved with film, specifically film society activities, which did mean you saw an awful lot of pictures, because you went to so many viewings.
However, my destiny at that point was not the film industry, that was a hobby. I went back home and worked in the family business for a couple of years. But I realised more and more that it was not for me, a.) I did not want to be in the printing business all my life, and b.) did not want to be stuck in a small town.
Through the film society movement, I met some people who were involved in documentary filmmaking in London. They offered me a job, as a gopher and general dogsbody. I had a difficult time persuading my parents to let me do this, going off earning three pounds a week for doing god knows what. I had no experience at all.
However, this is where luck comes into it. In order to live somewhere in London, and my parents were very concerned about that, a friend of ours who had formerly lived in Lincolnshire in our hometown was the medical officer of health for Ealing. He had a rather large house and room in which I was able to live in. So I found myself working in this documentary company in the city near Kings Cross, a very small unit, with 5 or 6 people, making 16mm colour industrial films.
After a year this documentary company went bankrupt and I was on the street and of course, I was not in the union, which in those days was imperative if one wanted to be in the business at all. So I was out of work with no real experience. Talking to my landlord about my situation he said “Well, you know, we have a doctor, who goes to the Ealing studios quite frequently. If they have any problems or someone has an accident the doctor is called for.
Ask him to mention you to the people there!” I did not really think that anything would come of that and got a big surprise when one day I had a call from the personnel department at Ealing Studios, saying “Oh this doctor just recommended you, would you like to come in for an interview? We don’t have any work for you, but we just like to talk to you.”
So I went down to the studio, met these people, had a chat about what I knew – which was very little – and told what I wanted to do, which was specifically editing. They took all my particulars and I went away thinking that was the end of that and continued to look for work but did not find any.
Then I was 21 and a slightly late-starter because I had been working in my families printing business. So one day by chance, Ealing Studios called and said could you start on Monday. I found myself in the studios on a Monday morning working on ‘The Coral Sea’, which was their big film at the time, doing very ordinary work like carrying wheels around.
But I was in there, that was the important thing and again the pay was nothing. But it was the first run of the ladder and it was a department I wanted to be in and what happened there, it was a regular job. And of course being in the studio I applied for membership in the union, got it, so there were no barriers any more.
In those days the studio would have to establish first that no other union man was unemployed and only then were they allowed to look for fresh blood. And that is how people like myself were able to get in. It was luck, and I always stressed that. If I had not been living with the medical doctor in Ealing, I would not have had the opportunity to begin work at Ealing Studios. That’s the way it goes. But once I was in there, getting the union ticket was just a formality. And if you have the necessary ambition you just carry on.
But I was not like a lot of the other. I quickly came to the realisation that my contemporaries who were employed at the studio, really had no interest in film at all. Maybe their fathers were working there, the boy was leaving school, “maybe we can get him a job” they thought and that is how many of them got in there with no specific interest in film at all. It is just a job to them.
They did not even go to the movies. And that really surprised me because I had a background in film history and knew a lot about cinema and was just very enthusiastic about it.
Are any of the societies that you joined still in existence?
There are a few, but the reason that they proliferated in the forties, fifties and sixties was because we did not have television we had very few cinemas showing foreign films. The only way you could see, in particular, if you lived outside of London, esoteric work of any kind was by joining a film society.
And there were hundreds of them. Every town had its group. I ran two of them. One at my public school which is still going and one in my hometown of Boston which at one point had some 300 members.
I also got so enthusiastic about all this that I toured the villages around. Everyone was very excited about seeing films such as Cocteau’s Orphee and films from obscure Russian filmmakers they would have normally never seen.
Where does the passion for film come from?
I have to go back a long time here when I was eight to nine years old. My grandfather owned a cinema in the town and I was able to go to it. Just as kids now would look at videos. I would see perhaps eight films a week! For nothing, because my grandfather gave me a pass.
And my father was a very keen amateur owning a 16mm camera and we would make movies without any film in the camera. Me and my chums used to invent scenarios, I had a 9,5 mm camera which was a wonderful system for the amateur.
And at the age of ten, I had a little cinema at home in the garage, called the Plaza. And I would print in my families factory little programmes for the Plaza cinema. That was right at the beginning of the war. My dad was very happy I was doing all this. He was so generous, he would allow me to hire and rent these movies that I showed to the kids from a library and he would pay for it.
And I remember we got into terrible trouble for showing Battleship Potemkin to a crowd of kids who went home having nightmares. The mothers were furious and we had to close the Plaza for a while, because of the famous Odessa step scene, one of the great pieces of montage.
I did not realise then at the age of 10 that the scene was quite so violent. The thing that amazed me was I would talk about films like Battleship Potemkin and nobody knew what I was talking about. And now everyone is talking about it at film school – it’s completely different now. From my point of view, that is how I got into filmmaking and then I never left. But you also have to have some luck. It is imperative.
But if you do not have the ambition or ability the luck isn’t much good to you. You have got to have that as well. And film editing is a very small world, a tiny world and if you start falling down or failing, not doing the work properly or being difficult, having attitude, there is no room for that. Curiously the room we are in today is the room I started here in Pinewood in 1957 and it has not changed.
Then I worked on ‘ The Prince and the Showgirl’ with Marylin Monroe and Laurence Olivier. I was the 2nd assistant on that film, my basic job was joining the film. And escorting Marylin to rushes. Up this corridor outside this room. And Olivier who was an extremely generous soul and a very nice man to work with said to me you should be doing more than joining film.
Why don’t you do the footsteps? So I found myself promoted in post-production doing what we now call ‘Foley’, in those days it was called footsteps and all because of Laurence Olivier. The editor of that film was Jack Harris, a very famous film editor and we worked together for a long time, who promoted me than to his 1st Assistant editor and it was through him that I got my first cutting break at Elstree for Stanley Donen the American director.
With him, I worked on a film called ‘Indiscreet’ starring Gary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in this light romantic comedy. And because I was fascinated by musical films, working for Stanley was something I really wanted to do.
I got to know him sort of peripherally because directors would never come into the cutting room floor then. They would only watch the material in the theatre and they’d say ‘put a little more on the close-up’ or ‘ take a little of the long-shot’. You did not get what you get now, which is directors sitting in with you endlessly.
Do you like that?
It is a different world. Having met Stanley Jack Harris then went to Paris to cut a film called ‘Once More With Feeling’, which wasn’t a terribly good film with Yule Brynner. And during the course of post-production on that film, Jack Harris said to me he wanted to make another film with Yule Brynner.
We all thought that Yule Brynner was actually not terribly good at what he was doing, he shouldn’t be doing light comedy at all. And Jack Harris did not want to cut it, so he asked Stanley if I can do it. And Stanley agreed and I got this break to cut the feature at Shepperton, a film which has completely disappeared, you can’t find it anywhere, called ‘Surprise Package’, which was a pretty dire comedy.
This was my first film and it was awful! I thought I would never work again! But fortunately – and here is luck again – Stanley while we were still cutting ‘Surprise Package’ got another gig at the same studio called ‘The Grass is Greener’ with Gary Grant.
And he said to me, ‘will you cut’ and I said ‘ well, I haven’t finished the other one’. He said ‘that doesn’t matter, you can do two at once’. And that was what I was doing: I was finishing off ‘Surprise Package’ and at the same time cutting ‘The Grass is Greener’.
And although that wasn’t a great film, it had a great cast, Gary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum, Gene Simmons, there was a load of people in it. And it was a doddle to cut. Even though it was only my second film, I was still learning, because that’s the way you do it, you learn on the job. And because of continuous employment, I then started to get a reputation and that’s it really. You find me here some 35 years later in Pinewood cutting the new Bond movie.
How do get these jobs?
You get the job because you meet the people who make the films. You either get the job by becoming close to a director so he wants to work with you again and therefore you have continuity of employment, which happened to me with John Schlesinger. I started working for John in ’63 on ‘Darling’.
And because he and I got on, I was cutting every film of John’s that I was available for over a period of some 10 years. And that was for a long period. I got to Jack Harris not because I had cut two films, but because the production manager of ‘The Grass is Greener’ was about to go on to a Jack Clayton film and suggested me to Jack who did not have a regular editor.
So it works that way, that somebody recommends you. You have an interview, you get on, maybe, if you don’t get on, that’s it. But I have always been very lucky, at that period certainly to have worked with so many people. Which is another clue to finding work.
I had a sort of ambition to direct, it wasn’t a very strong one, but it was there and I fell into that for a couple of years – not the happiest period – when I was doing ‘Darling’, only my fourth film. The producer of the film who is now also dead – almost all of these people are dead now – Joseph Jaffe asked me one day ‘you should be doing some work for me’.
And I ended up doing commercials, which I never felt easy about and never really liked. I also directed and wrote a children’s feature film, which was another little route one had at the time. Films made for children were quite big then. The children’s film foundation existed and made quite a lot of films.
And they were good training grounds too. We made 60-minute films shot in three weeks. And then by chance I ended up doing a comedy for a producer called Ned Sharren. He is still around, but no longer making films and he is now very big in the show business and theatre. And for some reason he got me involved in ‘That Was The Week That Was’ which he was doing for the BBC, a weekly satire show.
I did a fifteen minutes nudist parody with quite a good script actually and that became very popular. And when he started doing features he asked me to do one for him. I made one with the late Marty Feldmann. It was his first film and my first film, not unsuccessful but I have to say terribly dated. If you look at it now it’s called ‘Every Home Should Have One’, a comedy dealing with advertising and sex. Actually quite funny in its way.
I could not really get established as a director because there were far too many of us and I did not have a reputation. Really I was not very happy. So after doing two other films as a director, I made a big decision not to do it any more but return to editing which was a very wise move because I always felt I would never be more than a so-so director, whereas as a film editor I had a chance of being at the top.
At that point was television already an issue?
I never really worked in television, although I could have done. And I tried very much to avoid television series because it all very much look to like the graveyard for film editors. It was a bit of a last resort for those who had not done so well in features, at that time.
But I worked a lot in America after I worked for Schlesinger in particular. Then I found myself very much involved in films in Los Angeles as well as here and edited films such as ‘Killing Fields’ and ‘Mission’.
Was there a defining moment for you where you decided to get into filmmaking?
It was gradual really. To begin with, when I got involved with the BFI and the National Film Theatre, I did not consciously say to myself I want to be in the film business. At that time I wasn’t dealing with things technical, I was dealing with education and film studies.
But I think the fact that I had that year in London, wetted my appetite and opened my eyes to a wider world than I would have ever have in a small town. And I could see my future, I could see the people around me, I knew what would become of me. I’d just be some old fool, wishing he would make a break, and never doing it.
And I was lucky enough, but I was not poor because my father was very helpful to me, he encouraged me, even though I was supposed to go into his business, he himself actually wanted to be a photographer. He really did not want to be involved, running a factory. And I think because he and I were very close sharing a lot of interests, he wanted to help succeed with a great interest in what I was doing.
This kind of support really made it possible for me to pursue my career. I also think that a certain amount of financial support is healthy, whereas some people think that perhaps parents should not help the kids too much. As a parent now, I think that is why we are here for, to help the kids.
If you compare today’s industry with what it was like 20 or 30 years ago, is there anything you are missing?
It is very different today. I don’t think there is anything I am missing, I think the fact that in the early days when I was cutting the participation of the director in the final cut was never as hands-on as it is now. And very often they had another film they were preparing while they were finishing off another one. So they really did not have that much time.
And the producers very often were the ones who would work with the editor to finalise the film and only consult with the director when necessary. Nowadays, most directors want to be with you certainly all through the all important directors cut. The other thing which has changed drastically is this question of previewing the film before it has been released. And the whole marketing of movies.
When I worked originally at Ealing, we never previewed any of those films. These films were never screened for anybody. The Ealing comedies were never shown to the public before they were released. Sir Michael Balkan had one rule, ‘you can’t have a comedy more than 95 minutes’. And if a film was running a minute over it had to be cut.
I remember on ‘The Lady killers’, which was one of the films I worked on, we had some amazing stuff on that, McKendrick had directed it beautifully, elegance was fantastic, and we all loved this film. And it was running about 105 minutes. But Mick Balkan said, ‘No, terribly sorry chaps, 95 minutes’.
Poor old Sandy sweated blood to reduce this film to 95 minutes and hacked out an awful lot of good stuff, which I much regret missing. But it’s still a good film to watch, it did not harm the movie. The question now that we all face, is pleasing everybody. Pleasing the studio, the politics of film making is far more complex than it used to be.
And film editors have always been in a situation where politics is very important. And that is one of the reasons why some editors survive and other don’t. Nothing to do with their ability. But a great deal to do with attitude and a great deal to do with diplomacy, how you treat people, how you manoeuvre – it’s a skill that you actually cannot be taught in film school.
And I don’t think from my scant knowledge of film schools that that is something they really get involved with. Until you are actually working in the industry you can learn these skills. When I started film schools did not exist, my film school was Ealing Studios.
Mick Balkan was an authoritarian patrician type producer, that place was run on public school lines. It was exactly like a public school in England. The actual hierarchy and the unwritten laws, rules which you did not transgress, or if you did you were wrapped on the knuckles, taken to the headmasters study and told off.
Nothing was written down, but you very quickly learned what you position was in the hierarchy of the studio. It was very, very authoritarian. Sir Michael Balkan was the headmaster, no question, the producers and directors were the housemasters, the writers were the head prefects. And we were the boys clocking-in in the morning at 8.30 am exactly. If you were late three times, you were fired.
And there were not that many girls in those days either. Not anywhere near as many as we should have had. And yet as you know in the in the film editing world outside of England and America, woman have always been more dominant than men.
My wife who is is also a film editor, is convinced that woman make better film editors than men. They are very happy in a way to serve the director. My wife thinks editing is like knitting, it’s a thing you do and you can undo. If you knitted something you don’t like the look of you can take it all down and actually make something else out of it. What we editors do finally, is the last draft of the script. And believe me, most of the scripts are pretty bad.
Do you think trying to please everybody, is that good for the film?
I don’t think it’s bad. It’s not a process I really object to, because I think it has become a necessity. In those days we would make a movie to please ourselves. And then we would hand it over to the distributor who would market the film. There was no television competition.
Everybody went to the cinema, perhaps two or three times a week. So there wasn’t anything much to discuss, even if a film did not do so well, because maybe it was not very good. But it would get released. Then little by little the whole thing became more expensive, television came in, people weren’t going to the cinema, you then had to start tailoring your movies to suit the audience, so that in a way the work done by a producer and the director – unless they were very big, authoritarian characters – could be altered to suit the public.
In America in particular the preview process has been prevalent for a long, long time, sometimes they even remake half of the movie if the test audience does not respond well to a picture. We have done it here with films such as ‘Killing Fields’, which ended up being very successful.
But the film underwent quite heaving previewing and additional scenes had to be shot. That is quite common now. Everybody is looking to get those figures at a preview, they want to get into the 80-ties or even 90-ties of appreciation by the audience.
If you sit there and your film is getting 50, the marketing people who also sit there will say, this isn’t worth it. So you know your movie begins to die on you. Even though it might be very good. I cut a lot of films which I have time for as movies which never found audiences.
Because they were perhaps not properly released or poorly marketed, or whatever. So it is different in that respect. But it is still great fun, whichever world you live in, whether you are going back 30 years or now. The process of storytelling is the same and now we are into real high-tech. I have been through everything. I cut my first cinemascope film on an old Moviola, with a bullseye magnifying glass.
It made so much noise you could barely hear the soundtrack! You put your foot on it, it was like a sewing machine. But we made the films, and they were good. They were not as complicated as they are now. It is not an easy task. As you can see in this room, I am surrounded by high-tech equipment, non-linear edit machines. I feel like Captain Kirk.
And I could see that a long time ago because I was always interested in computers. When I was at Columbia with David Puttnam, in Hollywood in 1983, it was the early days of digital editing and I was fascinated by it. And because I was in a position of some authority I got them to put one machine in my room. It was an ediflex machine and that was a real pig.
So I learned a bit about it, although I did not get to actually cut a film on lightworks until 1994. But I have never gone back to film. And I don’t regret the move towards digital technology. It just depends on what you do with it. For example, I just completed a film where I wished we had not used it because the director would have gone on cutting forever.
And every time the director told me it’s fine, it’s perfect, she would change her mind overnight and the following day she’d come in and you find yourself back where you started. In the old days, you could not do that. You could not make instant changes. The discipline of filmmaking has changed with this new technology.
Because in the old days, if a director wasn’t quite certain about a scene, you’d say, ‘right, I’ll have it duped tonight’. That meant sending the cutting copy to the lab, to have a copy made, and in the morning you’d have the copy in your hands, and you’d recut it, according to what the director wanted. If he preferred it you would make your cutting copy the same as the duplicate.
But that involved a 24-hour turnaround. It was a complicated and expensive procedure. Now you do instantly. There are infinite choices which at times makes it very difficult to cut. And when you get directors shooting millions of feet the possibilities are of course endless.
But there is still a release date and you have to get your film completed by then. This Bond movie I am cutting now has a release date set on November 19th 1999. And the films will be locked, that means there can’t be any more changes – by August 19th. And as new footage is being shot, we are cutting it straight away so that the director can see the work as soon as possible. Even if it is rough and not absolutely right, in case they need a reshoot.
What advise would you give to newcomers who wish to become editors?
When I am cutting a film, I get applications from a lot of young people looking for work, sending in their CV’s. The truth is as a film editor I only choose basically my first assistant, because I need to have somebody I know and I can trust and I like working with. I then leave it to them, to assemble their team, because, in the way that things go, they must be happy with whom they have to work with.
It is a very hard question. You need to have incredible tenacity or be in the right place at the right time. If you do not have the necessary ambition and attraction to the business, then you are not going to succeed anyway, we don’t have time for those who are shilly-shallied, coming in late or who don’t want to work when you want them to.
It’s also very hard to keep a private life if you are in the cutting room. Many marriages fail because when it comes to the crunch you are working here an awfully long time with a seven day week. I just think it is a privilege to be involved in.
Jim Clarke, thank you for talking to us.