Q & A with Planet of the Apes Editor Chris Lebenzon

Chris Lebenzon

Editor Chris Lebenzon got his start in motion pictures
in the late 1970s, when he started fooling around on the KEM machine
that his roommate, Michael Wadleigh, had used to cut Woodstock.
Though he worked steadily on a number of small independent films
at that time (most of which still have never been seen by audiences),
Lebenzon’s first big break came when editor Richard Chew brought
him on board as an assistant editor on Wadleigh’s Wolfen in 1981. For the past two decades, Lebenzon has been averaging about
one feature per year, working alongside such directors as Tim Burton,
Michael Bay and Tony Scott. Among his many credits are Ed Wood, Crimson Tide, Mars Attacks, Con Air, Armageddon, Enemy of the State, Sleepy Hollow and Pearl Harbor.
This summer, Lebenzon’s most recent collaboration with Burton can
be seen in his “rethinking” of Planet of the Apes. In this
interview with MM, Lebenzon talks about his early editing
days, the changing face of the film industry and those ‘damn dirty
apes.’

Phillip Williams (MM): Could you
talk a little bit about how you got into editing?

Chris
Lebenzon (CL):
When I was going to school,
they didn’t have film school really, and I didn’t know what I wanted
to do. My brother knew the guys who made Woodstock, and they
were going to make a bicentennial movie on the American Revolution
to come out in 1976. The movie never got made, but I lived at Michael
Wadleigh’s house and he had a KEM that he used on Woodstock in his
garage. He had old film-16mm, basic documentary rough footage-and
I learned cut it.

MM: So the first thing that you did
was a documentary?

CL: Back then, in the late ’70s, there were
tons of independent films being made because the tax laws were different.
So there was this whole flow of movies that never actually saw the
light of day; they were made for tax write-offs. I ended up doing
a couple of those-actually editing-before I was even a proper assistant.

MM: When you first started out, what
were the main misconceptions you had about editing?

CL: I never realized the kind of time commitment
that was required [laughs]!

MM: Is there anything about Planet
of the Apes that really challenged you?

CL: The visual effects part of it stretched
me because there are crowd scenes and other elements related to
the environment of the planet that they’re on that aren’t evident,
even now-and we’re two months away from the release. So we’re doing
things with the images and the effects to create that, to help with
the geography of where we are, and so forth.

MM: So as you’re cutting scenes together,
you have to be aware that a given shot is going to be filled out
later with effects?

CL: That’s right. You have to be aware of what
is going to be added to a shot so that as you cut it all together
there will be sense to it all. In some shots, apes get added later.
They’re digitally replicated; they add more than I might be looking
at when I first cut the scene. Even with the ape’s faces we’re doing
certain things [digitally] to make them scarier. So, I have to know
that this moment-this shot-is going to effect me differently later
than it does now because of how it will be altered.

MM: Has it been much of a challenge
to match light from shot to shot?

CL: On this one it’s been difficult, but there
are so many improvements with color printing now-what you can do
digitally to a shot-that it’s much easier to make corrections. They
even have software that can put things in focus. A lot of the challenge
on this project has been the schedule, because as Tim [Burton] was
shooting, I was cutting it and showing him tapes of what I’d done.
He could modify the movie as we went along in order to meet the
release schedule. So far it’s worked very well.

MM: Is that typically how you work
together?

CL: Mostly I’m there on set, in a trailer or
wherever I have my cutting room set up, and he can come in between
set-ups. But on this film, with all the varied locations and the
schedule, I couldn’t always be there with him. But I would bring
him tapes or send them to him. He’d mull them over and make a few
comments-that’s how we worked.

MM: Did the story of Planet of
the Apes change much from when you saw the first script?

CL: Tim took things out as he was shooting-rather
than take it out in the cutting room-just based on his instincts,
his feeling for the material as he was shooting. That helped a lot;
otherwise we would have had to take a lot of it out later [in the
cutting room].

MM: For you, is there such a thing
as too much coverage?

CL: Coverage is great: it makes for a long
first cut and it complicates the editing process, but in the end
the movies are better. Of course it all depends on the director:
Michael Bay gets unbelievable coverage, and all of us are only as
good as the material we get. [Bay] shoots so much great stuff that
it’s hard in a way to figure out what you want to take out. It’s
hard for him, as well. Yet Tim Burton, for example, has a very clear
idea of what the result is, so those movies come together a little
easier, but there are fewer possibilities for making changes to
the story.

MM: Does cutting something like Ed
Wood require a different approach from you than a film like Con
Air?

CL: No, because I’m always just responding
to the material. It’s great for me. For example, Pearl Harbor was fabulous because I could work with some incredible battle footage
one day then the next day do some romantic love scene. Normally,
you don’t get that in one movie. [You might not] even get it in
consecutive years.

MM: Do you ever go on the set?

CL: I do, but not very often. For one thing,
it takes away from time dedicated to my job. It’s fun to see something
shot and then to see how it’s translated onto film, but people ask
me questions when I’m on the set that I don’t really want to have
to answer, like: ‘What does this look like?’ or ‘How did such and
such a shot turn out?’

MM: So it doesn’t help your job to
see how something was shot?

CL: No, I leave that to the directors. They
use their memory and say, ‘I remember a better take.’ They make
that translation. It’s better for me to just hammer away at it in
on the Avid.

MM: How do you keep track of the
big picture when you’re cutting?

CL: Well, that’s the trick-it’s hard. That
comes in later, when it’s all together, or sometimes halfway through
when you start to see that maybe this character is about this, or
you start to ask: ‘Why is this one doing this?’

MM: Are you ever surprised by the
results of your work?

CL: I never know how this stuff is going to
be received. All I do is try to make things clear for the audience,
because that’s the way I am in life: I like things presented in
a simple, direct way. And I think that’s how audiences feel when
they’re sitting in their seats: they don’t know where the film is
taking them and they don’t have to be told everything every step
of the way, but they do need some guidance. We do that in [the editing
room]-we help them along.

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